The rocky, shrub-covered landscape of the American West looks like it should be home to living dinosaurs. Even though Apatosaurus, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus and many, many other dinosaurs inhabited a variety of environments quite different from the landscape as it is today, the places where dinosaur bones are found feel as if prehistoric creatures should still be making their homes there. The very geological formations which contain the dinosaurs create beautiful and strange landscapes of crumpled and shifted rock dotted with twisted junipers and fragrant sagebrush—these wild places have an air of the ancient to them, and it is difficult to resist imagining an Allosaurus lurking around the massive rock fins of a place like Arches National Monument or a Diplodocus set against the backdrop of Dinosaur National Monument. Sharon Farber drew out this idea in her short story “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi,” in which the feuding 19th century paleontologists E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh compete for a modern-day dinosaur. New author J.P. Carlson has followed suit with his novel Rex Riders.
Much like the graphic novel Tommysaurus Rex, Carlson’s book is not so much a dinosaur tale as it is a coming-of-age story. Zeke Calhoun, a 14-year-old boy living on his uncle Jesse’s ranch, is out of place in late 19th century Texas. Talkative and whiny, he often gets on his uncle’s nerves, and he stirs up a mess of trouble when he tries to return a rich rancher’s prize stallion and ends up looking like a horse thief in the process. Zeke’s mistake plays right into a long-running rivalry between his uncle and the wealthy rancher Dante D’Allesandro, but just when it looks like the teen has ruined his uncle’s business, a serious of fortuitous events gives him the chance to save the ranch and prove himself.
Zeke’s adventure, played out in three acts, is what you might get if you threw The Valley of Gwangi, The Lost World and One Million Years B.C. in a blender with just a dash of Cowboys & Aliens. Cowboys, dinosaurs, aliens and prehistoric people all have their own roles to play, starting with a Triceratops that rampages through the middle of town. Things get even stranger when Zeke stumbles across a small Tyrannosaurus outfitted with riding gear and the wounded, tough-skinned humanoid who controls the dinosaur, and this discovery draws Zeke, his family and his friends into a dangerous conflict between the inhabitants of a prehistoric world and the nefarious D’Allesandro.
Rex Riders contains plenty of complicated plot elements, but Carlson admirably balances them as the plot unfolds. The focus on Zeke’s personal development is the anchor for the story (though the reader does lose sight of the main protagonist for a while during the second act). Dinosaurs and numerous action scenes liven things up, but most play a role in getting Zeke to realize something about himself rather than just being there for their own sake. A few black and white illustrations by Jim Calafiore are a welcome addition to the book as well, particularly since they mix modern restorations of dinosaurs with a classic, Ray Harryhausen feel. There was only one aspect of the book I felt disappointed by: a group of native warriors called the Cragnon receive almost no description, making it difficult to imagine what they look like.
Naturally Rex Riders leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but the books also stands well on its own. Young sci-fi and dinosaur fans will almost certainly love it, and the book reminded me of many of the classic stop-motion dinosaur movies I spent countless afternoons watching when I was a kid. If you like Westerns but wonder what it would be like to replace cattle with Triceratops and horses with Tyrannosaurus, definitely give Rex Riders a look.