Cover Image: The Nightland Express

The Nightland Express

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Member Reviews

Set in the time of the Pony Express, Ben and Jesse are both applicants for a special job posted for the Express; they are also both seeking a deeper understanding of their selves and their places in the world. Once they are hired for the special job with the Nightland Express, they spend much of the journey attempting to keep their separate truths away from each other, to no avail.

This novel started a bit slow for me, but once I got a few chapters in, it really took off. It begins as a somewhat pedestrian race to see which applicants will be chosen for the special job, but once the journey begins, odd things begin to happen, departing more and more from the history of the time and into the mythology of the fae. By the end of the novel, the story has gained an air of the metaphysical in its explanation of separation of the normal and fae worlds. There is also a fair amount of introspection by Ben and Jesse that does a wonderful job of enhancing their characters. Appropriate for middle school readers to adults.
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Thank you, Erewhon Books and NetGalley, for giving me access to the eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!

This is a book about two teenagers who walk the lines between worlds (race, gender) that, in their search for freedom and family, end up crossing the country and the frontier of a new, magical world, more intertwined with theirs than they could've ever imagined.

Their adventures will lead them to expand their horizons regarding their own identities and perspectives in a western setting that quickly gives place to the brewing of a Fae war in the brink of explosion, combining the folklore of both the Native people of North America and of the colonists from Europe, while also allowing the exploration of systemic injustice through both the realistic and the fantastical elements of this story.

Even though I personally didn't love the execution of the last part of this book, and found a couple of action scenes and descriptions to be a bit confusing, I ultimately think it's an entertaining story that choses to go the best way it knows how to when it comes to its themes—with care, aware that acknowledging them is way more realistic and respectful of its readers than pretending like they would never affect a story like this (or like any other, for that matter).

I would recommend it to teenagers who are 15/16 and up, since some parts of this book might be a bit too dark for younger audiences.


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2.5/5, rounded down

i really did want to like this book, but it just didn't come together for me in a satisfying way. like other reviewers, i was okay until about halfway through, and by the last third or so i was struggling. the end was confusing to me, and i finished the book with a lot more questions than i would like. it's a shame because i did find the characters interesting at first and some of the concepts really interesting, but i rounded down because it just totally fell apart for me
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This book is absolutely brilliant and I wish more people were talking about it! I loved the journey that Ben and Jesse go on and the character growth that they both experience.
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I really wanted to like this one. Unfortunately, it fell through. I think the biggest reason why was false advertising.

I was expecting pony express historical fiction. And for the first half of the book, that's exactly what it was. Then we veered off the tracks into Native American fae and folklore, which is super cool, but the book wasn't set up for that at all.

The end was confusing, and everything fell flat. Pretty disappointing.
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The Nightland Express by J. M. Lee is an interesting take on the riders of the Pony Express.  With twists and turns and different worlds to navigate, Jesse and Ben's journey makes for a good story.
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I’m fully on board for any Western story with magical elements​​—the wildness and expansiveness of the American West in the 19th Century mixed with the supernatural or fantastical opens up exciting possibilities for storytelling. The combination also not only allows for the creation of a vivid world, but also allows the author (and the reader) to explore themes of change (violent and otherwise), systemic injustices, and personal self-discovery, all of which are often spiced up with a touch of adventure.

The Nightland Express by J.M. Lee checks all of these boxes, and is a must-read for anyone who loves the blend of these two genres.

Lee’s story takes place in a version of 1860 America and follows Jesse and Ben, two youths who desperately want to join the Pony Express for their own private reasons. To that end, they find themselves competing to be one of the “young, wiry fellows not over eighteen” who know how to ride a horse and are willing to risk death daily.

[rest at]
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I'd like to thank Netgalley and the publisher for this e-ARC.

The cover is absolutely stunning, it's the first thing that caught my eye about this book.
The story is basically Pony Express crossed with magic.
This book has: dual POV, magic, LGBTQ characters.
The first half of the book is leaning towards more of a historical fiction.
The base idea of the book is really interesting, but unfortunately there was something missing in the story for me. I couldn't really connect with the characters and sometimes found my mind wondering to other places while I was reading.
The magical elements were interesting and I really wanted to know more about this world.

Overall, I think it was a good story, it's definitely worth to check it out if you like fantasy books with magic and adventure.
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The Nightland Express is an interesting novel that I didn't quite connect with.

Jesse (or Jessamine) cut her hair, hopped on her horse, and applied for a position with the Pony Express. Her sister is pregnant, and she really wants her father there for the birth. Their father left years ago to pursue economic opportunities out West, and never came back. Jesse wants something different from life than her sister. She doesn't feel comfortable in her skin as a female. She is excited to try to become a Pony Express rider, and, in her travels, to be able to find her father and bring him home.

Ben also desperately needs this position with the Pony Express. Ben is mixed race, and has his freedom papers. But his half brother and son of his former enslaver wants to capture him and bring him back home to serve him, and is willing to chase him across the country to make it so.

Jesse and Ben win the prized assignment, but find out that it is a unique assignment, not the normal Pony Express. They are to go to a special station and pick up a different type of package. Ben is given a special horse to ride, and Jesse is given nose drops to give his horse so it can make it all the way across the country. When they pick up the "package," they discover it is a little girl who is very demanding. Meanwhile, they also encounter spectral creatures who fighting a battle a world attached to theirs, and become involved in the struggle themselves.

Good things about this book:
the discussion of transgenderism, as Jesse explains very well why he doesn't feel like a like a girl, and Ben accepts him the way he is
the discussion of how white men came to America and saw themselves as masters of the natural world, rather than living with the world and treating Mother Nature with respect (not to mention treating native peoples with respect)

Not-so-good things:
the story is choppy and drags at times
the metaphors are heavy-handed at times
the fantasy seems jarring rather than a natural part of the story

I wouldn't tell someone not to read this book, but nor would I recommend it. It is interesting, but just not my favorite.
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Ben and Jessamine (Jesse) have good reasons for wanting to join the Pony Express and head west.  While they will both get the job, it is not the experience they expect.  Instead of riding a normal Pony Express route, they are assigned to the Nightland Express, and tasked with transporting a rather unorthodox parcel.  Stationmaster Darcy Declan was particularly interested in Ben and Jesse, as he preferred riders who were double goods. Ben and Jesse fit the bill.  Ben Foley is a mixed-race former slave (his father freed him upon his death), but his skin is light enough that he can pass as white.  This is particularly beneficial, as it is 1860, Missouri and Kentucky are not the friendliest places to be if one is a slave or former slave, and Ben's half-brother, Randall, the new master, is not pleased at Ben being granted his freedom, and plans to capture him and destroy his freedom papers.  Jesse is biologically female but is disguised as a boy/young man to get the Pony Express position, and a male identity is what Jesse finds most comfortable/appropriate, although fully embracing that identity has not yet been possible.   Ben is hoping to make a new life in California, while Jesse needs to get to Carson City to drag home his father, who abandoned the family years ago, as Jesse's sister is heavily pregnant and unwed, and the only family in the area is an aunt.  If their own problems were not trouble enough, Ben and Jesse will soon discover that their assignment involves denizens of the spirit world, and that there are threats to both the "real" world and the "spirit" world.
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𝗠𝘆 𝗧𝗶𝘁𝗹𝗲: Cowboys and Specters
𝗙𝗮𝘃 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝗿𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗲𝗿: Snow
𝗥𝗲𝗮𝗱𝗮𝗯𝗶𝗹𝗶𝘁𝘆: Normal
𝗧𝘆𝗽𝗲: Novel
𝗚𝗲𝗻𝗿𝗲: Western Fantasy

~ Brilliant descriptions of creatures 
~ LGBTQ+ representation & living
~ Wild adventure across the USA
~ Olden times & cowboys, but with magical beings, for spice

Jesse & James (🤣 - Ben) are running from a world out to do them wrong, both masquerading as what they are not and lying through their teeth to become part of the esteemed Pony Express - with a twist.

They want the life that California promises - what they don’t need are magical beings who are waging a war of their own against each other, the lies of humans & the contamination of the spirit world. Jesse & Ben have a part to play, but whether for good or ill remains to be seen.


Sigh… semi-useless and oblivious children taking on more than they can bear or understand. A good premise for learning/entering adulthood - with two kids who could hardly save anything & anyone BUT they DO try.

✨𝗚𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝗶𝘁 𝗮 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱.

~ 🤔 The meshing of magical realism & 1800s cowboys was tricky
~  Ekkk, the father is horrible
~ Questionable future for the MCs (😞 - how will they manage?!)
~ Irrational, impulsive, illogical, cry-ey-cry stereotype- (w/ a *twist*?🙄)
~ There is a topic the author touches on but I don’t believe assess fairly 🤔

♡🌱 𝗕𝘂𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁'𝘀 𝗷𝘂𝘀𝘁 𝗺𝗲 ;)
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Two teens join the Pony Express, both trying to escape situations and themselves. They are tasked with picking up a special package and transporting it across the country. While this seems inconceivable, as they'll have no change of horses, they discover nothing is as it seems when they signed up to be riders: mysterious, malevolent beings dog their path as they travel huge distances thanks to portals.

Jessamine masquerading as a boy Jesse, and Ben Foley, passing as White, begin their journey wary of each other, but gradually open up, discovering things about each other and their country that come between them, and are actually at the heart of their mission, which affects both their world, and that of the magical beings they encounter along the way.

I was completely enjoying this book till about 2/3 in, and then I soured on it. The weird, repeated encounters Ben and Jesse had had with the strange beings and their doom-flavoured words finally get explained. Also, the hints throughout of Ben’s travelling to an alternate reality when things get bad is also explained. The problem is, neither felt satisfying or earned, including the connection that Ben and Jesse purportedly had together. 

Jesse’s sensitivity to Ben’s reality, as well as her seeing the injustice endemic to non-whites in America, were too quickly achieved by the author, considering Jesse had had too little experience with lives unlike her own. I also wasn’t able to accept the resolution to the overall threat to the fae.

I really wanted to love this, but did not.
My feelings about first 2/3: 4 stars
My feelings about last 1/3: 2 stars

Overall: 3 stars.

Thank you to Netgalley and to Erewhon Books for this ARC in exchange for my review.
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I really wanted to like it, and I did enjoy the first third, but then it went on and I found myself not caring at all about what happened because it felt like one damned thing after the next with no time to really think or get into the heads of the main characters.

I did like the rep—Jesse is a white trans person (his pronouns change but he tends to land on he/his) figuring out himself and realizing his privilege in the world, and Ben is a white-passing gay man escaping slavery to a new world. Both need to get west for ~reasons~ and both need a job with the Pony Express because apparently that's the fastest way to get west? So they take a special job and things do sideways almost immediately.

I also liked the way Lee decolonizes the world and addresses the effects of colonization.

However, once again, the entire story felt messy and despite the potential of these two amazing characters, I just did not feel they were fully realized.

I received this ARC from NetGalley
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Lee has written a delightful Old West fantasy story with multiple twists and turns that kept me guessing. Jesse and Ben are both engaging protagonists, and their reluctant friendship in the face of the strange encounters they have on the road was a delight to read. I loved the world created in The Nightland Express.
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I love the idea of weird westerns, but so far I haven’t managed to find a single one that’d satisfy the urge. I was especially excited at the prospect of one that deals with the racism and colonialism, but…I don’t know if it’s just because the cover and the blurb made me expect more weird western and less fae, but I wasn’t as much of a fan of The Nightland Express as I’d have hoped.

Jesse Murphy, intent on finding her father before her pregnant sister gives birth and excited at the opportunity to dress up as a boy, and Ben Foley, a mixed-race young man escaping slavery, sign up for a special assignment on the Nightland route of the Pony Express. Along the way, they quickly get entangled in the schemes of the fae.

Well. It’s mostly about the fae, which is where my main issue was. From the cover and the blurb, I very much expected it’ll be more about riding and overcoming dangers (supernatural and not) along the way and the characters, and it does contain some of that, but the “let’s go to X to deliver Y” plotline ends sooner than I’d have expected and in the end the whole book is really more about the fae and saving the world. It didn’t help that the characters were two-dimensional at best.

The pacing is also rather janky and rushed from about the middle onwards. A good example is a scene where a character is dying and the proposed solution is finding a magic cure…which is resolved in the span of maybe ten pages. It felt unearned. And the ending is a complete mess. Far too much gets introduced in the last third or so of the book when the story should be wrapping up.

Still, I found Jesse’s realisation about gender and the slow shift in pronouns from she to he in narration (with both used in the middle) very interestingly done. It’s clearly a very deliberate choice to have that ambiguity present and I liked that a lot.

Not sure if I recommend this one though. Decide for yourself.
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Big thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an eARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I just don't think this was the book for me. There was something that didn't mesh well with me. I don't know if it was the writing style of the characterizations. It was just off. I'm sure someone else is going to really love it though.
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A huge Thank You to The author, The publisher and NetGalley for providing the e-arc in exchange for an honest review.
I LOVE THIS! SO MUCH!!! Such an enjoyable read!
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Now THIS is a book I wish I could have read physically and not just on the NetGalley app. 

The Nightland Express was a stunning coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the wild, wild west with LGBTQ+ characters, adventure, magic, and all the works. What I was originally expecting just to be a historical YA contemporary turned out to have a beautiful, fantastical element that I feel ultimately gave the story a lot of lift. 

I loved Jesse and Ben as characters, and getting to read from each of their POVs was a great choice by the author. This is the kind of fiction that I am excited to see in the hands of young readers and on library shelves.
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A very unique story line that somehow doesnt live up to it's potential.  The story development in the first half of the book is great.  The characters are unique as well, but it feels as if the author had a great idea but had no where to go with it.  The book is definitely worth reading and sharing with your scifi circle but I dont see this one as the next blockbuster.
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I forced my way far past my usual cut-off point for a DNF - 20% - and made it halfway through the book before I just couldn't take it anymore.

I've been looking forward to Nightland Express since the publishing announcement - what, two, three years ago? But unfortunately, the book didn't live up to my hopes. The pacing is frantic, which gives neither reader nor the characters any time to process the magical events they're caught up in; and the magic itself felt so blunt and dry. There wasn't any sense of wonder to it, no beautiful-and-terrible vibes even though that was pretty clearly what Lee was going for. The prose was very bare-bones and unlovely, and although I liked the diversity of the main characters - a gay, white-passing Black youth and a young trans man - after a reasonably strong beginning both characters seemed to lose most of their personality, becoming very two-dimensional.

It's an easy read, a quick read, and it's not terrible. It's just that it's extremely basic (although granted, maybe the second half of the book would have wowed me with its originality...if I could have made it that far) - nothing about it stands out as special or interesting. I was literally nodding off (in the middle of the day) even as All The Things were happening.

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