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Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

August 28, 2014 2 comments

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey

Morningside Fall by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2014) Legends of the Duskwalker 2 follows on from Three with the young boy Wren now the Governor of Morningside. The title to the book is a spoiler in its own right because it announces that this citadel that’s stood against the Weir for a significant period of time is not going to do all that well as the pages turn. So this is a book that straddles a number of rather different genres. At its heart, this is a political thriller which examines how a self-contained group of people that has been in a stable situation should react when their autocratic leader is removed. The senior citizens who had been in a supporting role now find themselves as council members with a young boy nominally in charge. Unfortunately, one of this boy’s first instructions is to allow the people who had been living outside the city to take up residence. Worse, he has been awakening some of the Weir and expecting the city dwellers to accept these “people” as safe to live alongside them. The general rule is that people don’t respond well to change. Those who now have more obvious routes to power might be inclined to plot against the boy. Those on the streets might take it personally if outsiders start moving into accommodation next to them.

 

Secondly, this is a science fiction, post apocalypse novel. We still have absolutely no idea what precisely has gone wrong with this world but we seem to have a rump of humanity surviving in fortified cities (although, in the first book, we did meet one community surviving outside without walls) and under threat from the Weir. Now these are not simple zombie-like creatures. They retain some level of purpose and can also communicate with each other. Indeed, under certain circumstances, they are capable of co-ordinated action. There are also a small number of human mutants such as Wren who has a natural ability to interface with electronic systems and he can reawaken the human personality of a Weir. When awakened, he or she will retain the changed body and, depending on the length of time between turning and reawakening, it’s possible for the personality to return almost unchanged.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Thirdly, this is a hybrid military SF or Wild West weird. There’s a considerable amount of fighting between what’s left of the human armed forces and the Weir. The humans have some advanced weaponry, but they are relatively small in number. It’s therefore not unlike groups of white settlers, militia or US Cavalry going into the land occupied by large numbers of less well-armed Native Indians. Finally, this is a coming-of-age story as Wren and the young “friend” he has awakened adjust to circumstances around them and find themselves forced to take responsibility for what they are or may become.

 

The first novel in the series was very impressive because the main character was the titular Three who acted as the protector of, and guide for, Wren and his mother. This gave us a chase across the landscape as Three led the inexperienced boy to a place where there might be some safety. They were being pursued by a small group led by Wren’s older brother. Although not much of the world was explained, there was considerable tension in the chase and we did pick up clues about the Weir and some of the different ways in which human mutants could operate. Unfortunately, Three is killed at the end of the book which leaves Wren as the primary protagonist in this book. This is unfortunate because, frankly, he’s not that interesting most of the time. We’re waiting for him to grow into his mutant powers. So far, he’s just dabbling and lacks the self-confidence to really get things done. So although he can occasionally say relevant and quite powerful things in the political arena, he’s essentially dependent on his mother for political decision-making, and the cast of bodyguards to keep him alive. When things get too hot inside Morningside, they take off into the desert and this leads to some quite repetitive chase and fighting sequences. If the editorial staff had been prepared to cut down the length by at least ten percent, this would have been a better book. As it is, the book starts off not unpromisingly, but lacks an adult point of view to deal with the political situation. It’s only as we approach the end that there’s more emotional investment in the characters and we get into the conflict that will leave us ready for the next book in the series. This leads to the general conclusion that even though this improves towards the end, Morningside Falls is significantly less successful than the first in the series.

 

For a review of the first in the series, see Three.

 

The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

March 25, 2014 6 comments

TheCormorant-144dpi

In the beginning, so the story goes, we were all free to choose: to apple or not to apple. And, of course, being of a perverse disposition, we chose the latest model from the tree and got kicked out of the Garden. Since then, our track record as a species has been on a steady downward trend as more and more of us make bad decisions and have to live and die with the consequences. Except (there’s always an exception in these stories) some like to rewrite history. The way it goes it that this omniscience thing God has going for Him enabled Him to foresee we would eat the apple otherwise God’s knowledge would be imperfect and we can’t have that blot on the escutcheon of our deity. So, when He put us in there, he already knew we were going to fail the test. He just wanted to rub our noses in knowledge of how sinful we were. So predestination trumps free will. Well perhaps only on the big issues like good person/bad person. Yet even that’s controversial. Omniscience means He already knows whether we’re good or bad, and how we’re always more likely to make the wrong decisions when given the choice. That means some are doomed to perdition from the moment of their birth.

So perhaps the big picture is that we are bound by fate as to how we will end our days, but while living our lives, we have free will on little things like whether to wear a crash helmet while riding a bicycle. Of course, all but one or two individual humans have absolutely no insight into this philosophical conundrum that would have such profound consequences if it turns out God exists. They live their lives according to whatever beliefs and principles seem appropriate. The cautious choose to believe in a deity. The reckless deny it. But what about someone like Miriam Black? The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig (Angry Robot, 2014) sees Miriam caught in a very difficult position. It seems not only that someone knows exactly how her power of foresight works, but also how to use it against her.

Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig

For those of you not familiar with this powerful series, Miriam had a serious moment when she was a young woman. There was a tragedy. She might have died. But when she recovered, she discovered she had the power to see when and how people would die. All it takes is a touch, skin to skin, and she knows. In the first two books, she tries to work “within the system”. She may not understand all the rules, but she can at least experiment to see just how strong the shackles of fate can be. However, at the start of this book, she may have crossed a line drawn in the supernatural sand. Having foreseen a man is going to be shot, she follows him in the hours before the due time. She tries to talk him out of going to that particular place to use the cash machine. He, of course, won’t listen. It’s his fate to be shot by a mugger. So Miriam waits close by the machine, and when the mugger appears, she shoots the mugger dead. This is a radical departure. This is not just a minor intervention in the mechanism we call predestination. This is a full-scale monkey wrench thrown into the works. The powers-that-be cannot simply sit back spinning their threads and cutting them off when they think it right. They could be endlessly frustrated by this Miriam. She has to be disciplined in a way ensuring she will no longer interfere. Another figure is brought back from the edge of death. He knew Miriam. He can be persuaded to deal with her. He can be given a power of foresight that will enable him to beat her into submission — assuming that’s what fate has in store for her, of course. You see, that’s the big imponderable in all this. If the notion of free will is correct, then someone like Miriam can work outside the system fate dictates. In the final analysis, she would not be accountable. The only problem is that others around her, perhaps those she may have some feelings for, may not be so lucky. When fate fights back, there’s almost bound to be collateral damage.

Now you would be wrong to read this review as suggesting a philosophical tone for this book. In fact, it’s completely the reverse with a robust use of language and imagery throughout. Wendig is not an author who pulls punches. He’s developing a fine voice for delivering interesting ideas wrapped up in the mantle of violent supernatural horror. This makes him one of the most challenging of all the younger writers. Rather than drawing inspiration from some of the more established tropes and frames, he’s charged off into relatively uncharted territory. Obviously, there have been many who play with the idea that no-one can fight fate, or only The One (chosen or otherwise) can win the battle. Perhaps one of the more subversive books on this theme is Un Lun Dun by China Miéville in which the ostensible Chosen One is killed off early and the side kick has to take over when everyone else gets disheartened. This book breaks with convention through the character of Miriam whose defensive mechanisms make her extremely unsociable. Indeed, she’s arguably an anti-hero. This makes The Cormorant a very successful way of continuing the series and it’s recommended for all who enjoy supernatural books that push the boundaries of taste.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
Mockingbird
Unclean Spirits.

Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes

September 8, 2013 1 comment

hell-to-pay

Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes (Angry Robot Books, 2013) is the third and final episode in the To Hell and Back series. I guess that makes it a trilogy although, when it comes to writing the book, you can get different ideas about how many copies there are in each edition and, at the discretion of the characters, earlier books in the series can be rewritten or, if things are not going so well, more books can be added until the plot comes out to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s the big advantage when the whole point of the series is that God and the Devil are sitting down together in the Garden of Eden with a labour lawyer turned pastor acting as referee and editor-in-chief to get a draft of the “book” both can agree on. Once the book gets into the final draft, all this uncertainty can be swept away and the world will be a better place (or not if a compromise or two has to be made made to placate the Devil). From this, you should understand this is a trilogy that fails to take the Christian religion seriously. This makes it convenient to compare this to the Sandman Slim serial by Richard Kadrey.

Initially, you might think them thematically similar in that both play with the ideas that God might not be quite so decisive and all-powerful as the literalists would choose to believe with the Devil and his minions slightly less unpleasant than Pieter Brueghel the Younger and others have been painting them. But there’s a radical difference in tone. In the nicest possible way, I’d describe Kadrey as a thoughtful badass from LA whereas Hughes is an essential rather nice man with roots in Canada and Britain, a combination giving him a rather more mellow view of the world and its afterlife. Although they are both comedic in outlook, there’s a rather more relentless quality to Sandman Slim thanks to his mixed parentage, whereas Chesney Arnstruther is less competent. This is not Chesney’s fault. He was born with a form of autism so the usual socialisation fails to take and leaves him unable to relate to the world. Fortunately, he’s wonderful with numbers. Had his lack of empathy more profound, we might perhaps have classified him as an idiot savant. As it is, he’s an innocent Everyman with dreams that, one day, he can become a superhero. The result of a compromise deal when he turns down the usual offer of fringe benefits from the sale of a soul, are great fun — definitely not in the same ballpark as Sandman when he starts to kill.

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

On balance, Matthew wins. First he knows when to stop. He had a three book deal and does a terrific job in constructing a very elegant plot which plays through all the arguments about the nature of good and evil, and comes to a genuinely surprising conclusion. This is undoubtedly the right place to stop, but the Kadrey juggernaut rumbles on through the plot variations as if there’s no place he can’t take his characters. Second, the humour in Matthew’s books is a deft way of puncturing the bubble of hypocrisy that tends to envelope the religion “thing”. He sneaks up on some profound questions and has you into the debate before you realise the enormity of what he’s suggesting. Kadrey has the Sandman shoot and maim but, as a character, he’s not the greatest thinker. I suppose all this is doing is reveal a cultural preference for the style of humour closest to my own. Finally, there’s the question of the plot. Matthew’s primary concern is the nature of empathy and how it colours our relationship with the world. If selfishness prevailed, the general notion of fairness in interpersonal relationships would disappear. So the angels are on a need-to-know basis and the lower orders of Hell do what they are told. Their world is literally ordered. Only humans have free will but, even within the human race, we have variations like sociopaths and those suffering from autism. In other words, humans don’t always come out of the mould quite as they should.

In a way that’s why Chesney is good at relating to the junior devil allocated to him. They both end up interested in exploring the limits of what they can and cannot feel or do. In theory the devil is limited by the instruction rule book for Hellions, but it turns out there are nearly always loopholes. Chesney ought to be constrained by the laws of physics and human laws but, when you have a devil prepared to bend things around a little, the human can also get superhero things done. In the end it turns out every one in the plot is fallible. Even the Devil and God are forced to admit they haven’t got it right (whatever “it” is). That’s why they are in the Garden of Eden negotiating. Except, in a way, that means they have both taken their eyes off the ball. Chesney and other players are still loose in the world and can continue bending “things” even further out of shape. This final volume builds up to a pleasing metafictional climax in an alternate universe where God was trying out a different approach before our current reality. It’s great fun.

I note the coincidence of a mouse in this final volume who has a question — I was reminded of Douglas Adams in a good way. Overall, Hell to Pay is a very satisfying conclusion to an immensely pleasing trilogy. I suspect even Christians would enjoy it if they could only get past the idea of reading some irreverent.

I note another nice illustration of key plot elements in the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template.

The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby

September 5, 2013 Leave a comment

The Marching Dead

It’s remarkable how fast time flies. So fresh is it in my memory, it seems only a few days ago that I read The Corpse-Rat King. This was my first chance to meet Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick, as they perhaps got their just deserts by being caught on a battlefield, stripping valuables from the bodies of the dead. Not surprisingly, the surviving comrades of the fallen do not take kindly to battlefield looters and tend to despatch them summarily. Under normal circumstances, my meeting with this pair would have been somewhat fleeting, their deaths following swiftly upon their capture. But, by one of these accidents of fate, Marius had just picked up the crown of the fallen king and the dead were looking for a king so, in spirit, this was the ultimate case of mistaken identity. From their point of view, the dead headhunted the right person in the right place at the right time. Except Marius didn’t really want to be a king so he made a deal. He would find the body of the most famous king there had ever been and bring him to his new kingdom. Thus began what was clearly one of the better fantasies of 2012. It managed to balance traditional fantasy tropes against an absurdist sense of humour with resulting mayhem and considerable hilarity. So, not unnaturally, I had a standing order with my bookseller for the sequel, The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2013).

This picks up some four years after Marius had fulfilled his part of the bargain. One king, freshly unpacked from his box, had been delivered within thirty minutes of the scheduled time. With the deadline met (sic), our hero could then retire to the countryside with the love of his life. Yet, as you would expect, the course of true love never did run smoothly. Not only was Marius bored rigid (good for sex but not much else) but the king he’d found proved to be damaged goods and the Underworld decided the delivery failed to meet the specifications. The dead therefore came back for Marius and, to encourage him to adopt an appropriate work ethic, they carried off his true love — yes the dead really do believe in blackmail as the most efficient means for getting things done. To keep our hero company, they returned his sidekick and the latter’s dead Granny as companions on a quest to depose the king not fit for purpose and find a less shop-soiled replacement. On paper, this resumption of the quest should involve much further hilarity. Except, it’s a little disappointing. This is always the risk when I pick up a book with hope levels high. As a reviewer, it’s all part of the day’s work and a relief when I find something better than average. The problem here is repetition.

Lee Battersby

Lee Battersby

The first book has our hero wandering far and wide. Indeed, in terms of settings, he’s collected the complete set of T-shirts for having been there and suffered being the butt of all the relevant jokes based on geography and local environments. So having him walk the same ground without there being new jokes to tell is not going to be a success. Worse, we’ve also done all the main hero and his sidekick jokes. Introducing Granny as a second-string sidekick is less exciting. Hence the author is forced to fall back on the plot as the primary driver. This is at best interesting even though it nicely exploits the philosophical problem inherent in the role of religion. This world has seen a succession of different gods over the centuries. Much like our own world which has seen the development of various mono- and polytheist religions, this world has had difficulty in holding to one set of beliefs. In a sense, this is just a business opportunity for temples and other places for religious observance. As beliefs shift, the people running each place match the sale of relics, indulgences and other money-spinners to each new set of gods. So long as there’s no concrete evidence as to which religion is superior, wealth can flow consistently into the hands of those who run the worship businesses.

It’s therefore somewhat embarrassing when the dead won’t stay lying down and insist on an explanation if not their money back. Imagine a magnificently hypocritical rich man who has spent a small fortune on indulgences guaranteed to open Heaven’s gates. When he wakes up underground and learns there don’t seem to be any gates, pearly or otherwise, to gain entry to the promised afterlife benefits, he comes back to the church/temple in not the best of moods. Confronted by this evidence, what’s the church or temple to say? There are also some deliberate parallels between the status of the dead and slaves, and the inevitable temptation of the humans to recruit more dead slaves by terminating life. So there’s plenty to chew over as we meander through this world trying to devise a strategy for toppling the king of the dead and putting everything back the way it was. Except, of course, the genie is out of the bottle. The human world has seen proof positive that there was no paradise waiting for family and friends who went before them. Religions are therefore going to fall on hard times. More humanist beliefs are needed unless this current mess can somehow be sold as a temporary aberration with normal service resumed once the old king of the dead is removed.

Putting all this together, we have The Marching Dead as good but nowhere near as good as The Corpse-Rat King. If Lee Battersby has any sense, there will not be a third book in this series.

For a review of the first in the series, see The Corpse-Rat King.

Three by Jay Posey

Three-144dpi

The word “apocalypse” is rather interesting. In religious contexts, it’s taken to refer to a revelation, a transmission of understanding. Hence, in the New Testament, it’s the knowledge of the way in which good can finally triumph over evil and so produce what’s now called the End of Days. In secular terms, it’s become associated with any catastrophe that causes a more or less complete extinction of life on Earth. As a science fiction trope, post-apocalypse stories deal with the survivors doing their best to survive in a hostile or non-supportive environment. Frankly, the idea has been rather “done to death” by the arrival of zombies which, in various formats, have been trying to eat their way through humanity for the last fifty years or so — George A Romero has a lot to answer for.

 

Because the idea of the apocalypse has grown stale, the more creative have been striving to produce variations on the theme to maintain our interest. The traditional approach is to introduce your pack of people, then stage the disaster, and show how these brave few manage to survive. There are two strategies to improve interest. The first is to introduce some level of mystery as to what exactly went wrong or who was responsible. So we may start off before and see the disaster occur, only to be left to answer the whodunnit and why questions. Or we can begin in medias res and be left trying to work out exactly what form the disaster took. Obviously, the survivors know what happened and so have no need to talk about it. They are, however, surrounded by evidence of what went wrong and we are left to piece it together as the book proceeds. The other strategy is not to worry too much about the nature of the disaster but rather to focus on the characters of the survivors. If readers or viewers can empathise with the people, they can ride the adventure vicariously as it unwinds.

Jay Posey

Jay Posey

 

Three by Jay Posey (Angry Robot, 2013) Legends of the Duskwalker, is not quite breaking new ground by combining both strategies. There has been a disaster of some kind, but it’s not at all obvious what form it took. We meet Three who, against his better judgement, assumes the responsibility for protecting Cass and her son, Wren. Together they move across the remnants of a sophisticated urban environment where some of the technology still works. One of the more pleasing aspects of this journey is the lack of infodumps. There’s actually some very clever world-building on display here but you have to read the text to absorb it. This makes the prose rather more dense than usual. That said, it’s well worth the effort to read it. Indeed, the taciturn nature of the titular character Three makes analysis of the text the only way to work out what’s going on. If you’re not prepared to invest the effort, you should probably pass on this. But if you enjoy piecing the big picture together as this peripatetic narrative unwinds, this is one of the best examples of the phenomenon I’ve read during the last ten years.

 

We start off in one nameless urban environment and slowly work our way through the deserted landscape of empty buildings. From time to time, we lodge in safe houses or come to fortified areas that can be kept clear of the Weir — quite the most exciting variation on the zombie concept for years. Then it’s across the Strand — a positive wound on the surface of the Earth caused during the catastrophe, and into a different city run by a rather interesting Governor. Who everyone is and how they are related to everyone is fascinating. Assuming humans as a species are adaptive, it’s easy to see how we might move from modifying through genetic manipulation to the induced characteristics becoming inheritable. I will say no more but, as an analogy, think of the seminal film, Forbidden Planet directed by Fred Wilcox, but updated to match modern technology trends. Three is one of the best SF novels of the year so far.

 

The pleasingly atmospheric cover art is by Steven Meyer-Rassow.

 

For a review of the next in the series, see Morningside Fall.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch

WoundedPrey-144dpi

Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch (Exhibit A, 2013) manages to combine two firsts in one package. As I mentioned in another review, Angry Robot has been spinning off new imprints. This is my first look at Exhibit A. It also happens to be the first novel by this author. Following the adage you should always write about what you know, he splits the action between Iowa where he spent his early years and California where he moved and now lives. In 2012, he retired at the rank of Lieutenant and as Commander of the Detective Division. Uncannily, he has a rookie cop in Iowa called Kevin Kearns and a retired Inspector in San Francisco called Bob Farrell. When a rookie author seems intent on mining his own experience, this can turn out either very bad or very good. Fortunately and possibly because the events described in this book are somewhat removed from his own experiences, this proves to be very good.

As is sometimes the case, I have to begin with a warning. The book deals with a violent and dangerous predator who, given the chance, enjoys killing children and young adults. When an author approaches the task of describing the actions and motivations of such a man, it’s easy to overstep boundaries and either lapse into melodrama or become too graphic in describing what happens. I suppose you could say we’re in the territory occupied by Thomas Harris with the books featuring Dr Hannibal Lecter, and Thomas Tessier with books like Rapture and Secret Strangers, where authors aim to strike a balance between the thriller and a horror novel. To be honest, I’m always uncomfortable when it comes to imposing a specific genre on to a book. To me, genre is nothing more than a marketing tool to tell a bookshop where best to shelve a particular title. An author should always be true to the subject matter and let the prevailing culture determine how far to go into the psychology and practice of sociopathic behaviour. Some might find the descriptions too distressing. Others might criticise the author for turning out something bland in the tradition of Criminal Minds — suitable for eight seasons on primetime television. Taste is highly subjective. So from the outset we see Vernon Slocum snatch a young girl from a school party, shoot a teacher and beat Kearns unconscious. A few page later, we have a trucker notice her body and call the police to the scene. This is the start of what you might call a minor crime wave as our Vet travels across country on his “mission”.

Sean Lynch justly proud of his first novel

Sean Lynch justly proud of his first novel

The book is branded as the first in an intended series featuring Farrell and Kearns. Farrell is the older, streetwise detective who’s seen it all before and understands how all the relevant law enforcement systems work. He recognises Slocum’s signature and, for understandable reasons, decides to pursue the man in a private capacity. Yes it’s yet another book about vigilanteism but, in this instance, it’s more forgivable. This is not personal revenge. It’s a desire to right past wrongs and prevent further deaths. So to confirm the identity of his prey, he needs to spring Kearns from informal custody. The FBI have no idea who’s responsible for this killing and, to appease the public who are baying for blood, they’re intending to blame the rookie cop for failing to prevent the abduction. Half the interest in the book is therefore watching Kearns lose his naive view of the world and decide where he stands on moral issues. Perhaps it’s easy to say a trained man with a gun will always be able to kill in self-defence. But how does he reconcile his oath as a law-enforcement officer to uphold the law and protect the public, with the increasingly obvious need to do something to prevent Slocum from continuing to kill? The answers to this and similar questions arise naturally as the plot unfolds. Although there are elements of convenience in the way it eventually plays out, I have the sense both Farrell and Kearns come out of it as well as can be expected in moral terms.

Thematically, the book features the stereotypical antagonism between the police and the FBI. Indeed, at every point in the book, the senior FBI officers are cast as not very bright, inherently unpleasant and obstructive. Rightly or wrongly, we’re expected to cheer whenever our dynamic duo and their support team member manage to scam or beat up one of the Feebs. We’re also to see considerable flimflam action with Farrell exploiting the gullibility of those who have what he wants. I’m always surprised that creative writers make the average person such a sucker or someone so easily bullied into compliance by apparent authority figures. Perhaps this is a symptom of my own naive faith in human intelligence. Anyway, no matter how credible the salesmanship of Farrell, there’s good chemistry between the pair and I’m interested to see whether the next book can maintain this standard. This plot is all in the heat of the moment and we’re bowled along with relentless pace until the prey is cornered. It will be different in the next book as they put up their shingle as PIs.

I have only one minor worry which is aimed not at the author but at whoever edited the book which I have read as an ARC. There are two or three short passages of recapitulation which are annoyingly redundant. Hopefully these have been removed in the retail version. Other than this, Wounded Prey is a genuinely exciting thriller which contrives to avoid the more obvious pitfalls inherent in portraying the potentially explicit subject matter. You should give this a try.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins

February 8, 2013 Leave a comment

The Dead of Winter

The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins (pseudonym of Peter Friedrichsen) (Angry Robot, 2012) is following in the footsteps of some fairly powerful writers like Joe Lansdale (Dead in the West, etc.) and Norman Partridge (“Vampire Lake”, “Durston”, “The Bars on Satan’s Jailhouse”, etc.) in creating a weird west series (as an example in short story form, see the anthology Westward Weird edited by Martin H Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes. We’re in Jonah Hex territory as a couple from the south survive the Civil War and join the ranks of the bounty hunters. But as there are rather too many ex-soldiers trying to hunt down the human escapees, our happy couple specialise in supernatural threats, working for priests and protecting the people from harm.

The lead character is Cora Oglesby who with Ben, her husband, as her constant companion, moves from town to town, rooting out evil and collecting the bounty which is usually paid through the church. In this instance, they are passing through Leadville in Colorado when they get wind of an unusual killing. Hiring themselves out on a freelance basis, they work for Marshal Mart Duggan to confront the supernatural beastie. When the usual silver bullets fail to do the trick, the couple travel to Denver to consult Father Baez, their local expert on all things supernatural. In this instance, he’s baffled but an exchange of information over the telegraph wires bring a diagnosis of a wendigo. The despatch of this poor creature marks the end of the first part of the book.

The second begins with an approach from a British Lord who’s visiting Colorado to protect his silver mines. It seems the tunnels have been overrun with vampires (many of whom are recent converts from the ranks of his miners). Having nowhere better to go, the couple decide to stay in Leadville to help the Lord and his “expert” deal with this infestation. Needless to say, this proves more challenging than they are expecting.new-lee-collins-1

This novel represents an interesting challenge to conventional marketing wisdom. As I was growing up as a reader in the 1950s, novels dealing with the Wild West were fairly thick on the ground. This was reinforced by television shows like the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. As we came into the 1960s, cinema was into spaghetti and television continued to boom, but this represents the last hurrah for the genre. Thereafter it slipped into the background and book sales plummeted. This novel is therefore carefully retreading the old conventions of the brave marshal, the pusillanimous deputy, the saloon with its nonstop supply of rotgut whisky and 24/7 poker school, the inevitable whore houses, the miners who drink too much, gamble and whore, etc. It also has to confront the problem of language. Does it attempt to recapture the way folk in the late nineteenth century actually spoke, or does it update the vocabulary and syntax to match modern sensibilities? And then there’s the gender issue.

In the conventional western, the woman is either the domesticating influence who tempts the man from his world of action to set up a home, or she’s the sex object who’s used and then discarded as the man wanders off to punch some cattle or sling his six-shooter. As a generalisation, women could not be true to their sex and good with a gun (or in fighting using other weapons) although those we might call pioneer women would certainly have had basic survival skills and could probably shoot. Apart from Annie Oakley who was a sharp-shooting superstar, few women are shown with heroic qualities (despite Hollywood’s best efforts with Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead). Yet here we have a woman as the heroine. In all ways, she conforms to the archetype of a hero. In classical terms, she’s on a quest across the Plains to restore order. On the way, she encounters and overcomes evil. With her husband as her constant companion, she demonstrates all the usual traits of individualism although, this time, it’s in service to the community. She wins because she has a strong mind and no hesitation when it comes to pulling the trigger.

This is playing the same game as Xena, the Warrior Princess in having her demonstrate traditionally male characteristics. Indeed, from the way she dresses and her general manner, you could mistake her for a man the first time she walks into a saloon. From all this, you will gather the author makes little or no effort to replicate the language or the culture of the Old West. This is the Hollywood version of history, replacing the city in urban fantasies as a context for fighting supernatural beasties. In this case, we have a wendigo and a nest of vampires. Indeed, this might just as well be classified as a Western urban fantasy or paranormal romance tracing the nature of the relationship between this heroine and her man. Once you strip away all the paraphernalia of the Wild West, this is a slightly tame and, at times, a rather plodding series of fights, punctuated by the characters’ backstories and explanations of the supernatural beasties’ capacities and weaknesses. It’s very professional and highly competent but, for me, it lacks a spark of creativity or originality.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.