California Skies by Kayla Bashe is an endearing and exiting Western romance featuring Maggie Valerian, a spirited heiress and author, and California Talbot, the most dangerous bounty hunter in the West, and Maggie’s childhood friend.
Bandits came looking for the legendary emeralds belonging to Maggie’s family, killing her older brother and scarring her face. She can’t change the past, but finding the jewels will help her injured sister recover. In need of reliable muscle, she goes to an old friend of her brother’s: tough-as-nails nonbinary bounty hunter California Talbot.
While Maggie expected hard roads and violence, given the tragedy that provoked the journey, she wasn’t expecting the bar fights, snakes, and bandits to be the easy part—and the difficult part to be a growing attraction to someone who’d probably never look twice at her mutilated face.
It’s always fun to read a story with a character with your name, and it’s even more fun when that character identifies as the same things you identify with. Maggie is bisexual, explicitly stating that she’s had relationships with “boys and girls and even another someone who wasn’t either”. I have seen so few bisexual women in literature that reading Maggie’s story was both liberating and refreshing–especially when it didn’t end in tragedy.
California Talbot, aforementioned bounty hunter, doesn’t identify with the gender binary, and that’s never made into a plot point. California’s allowed to exist as they are without having to explain themselves to anyone: the reader, the story or the other characters.
California Skies was exactly the kind of story queer readers need to see in the world: not a tragic story about a queer person explaining who they are and why they deserve to be there for 50,000 words, but a story about anything that features queer people and their queerness isn’t the plot twist.
Bashe has some of the most vivid language skills I’ve read in a long time. For instance, the second paragraph, which immediately sold me this book as four stars minimum:
Maggie was good at lies, but she liked this particular nurse. So she told the truth: “I’m going to look for California Talbot.” It was a name like green things after rain and red mountain stone cascading out in rolling hills. Talbot as quick and sharp as a bullet, California open as the sky, or a sigh.
The rest of the novella (because California Skies is not a full length novel, but rather a long short story/novella, clocking in around 30 or 40 pages–give or take, since it’s only available as an ebook) is full of little things like this, where the language just jumps off the page at you and makes you remember it for the entire day. It’s the kind of language you won’t be able to forget.
One of the reasons I gave California Skies four stars is because the main character’s name changed every so often in the latter half of the story. We started with Maggie, and ended with anything between Jo and Maddie. Mistakes, probably, that could have and should have been caught with a read through. It was a distracting mistake that, if it occurred only once, I could have forgiven and gotten on with reading. But it happened multiple times on the same page.
And there was a strange pacing issue on the way to the climax. Perhaps it was the length of the story that I wasn’t quite used to, but everything had been paced well throughout the story until the rise to the climax. Something about the set-up to meet the antagonists didn’t sit right with me.
But this is a great story to read, seeing as it’s Valentine’s weekend, so I highly recommend picking it up!