Summary: Cora and her husband Ben are bounty hunters who make their living by killing various supernatural shit in the old west. I fuckin’ love supernatural shit in the old west.
It’s rare to see established relationships in fiction, so I was curious to see how he would handle it — answer is, unfortunately, not particularly engagingly. It’s a hard thing to pull off, since the quickest shortcut to audience-engagement in a romance is unresolved sexual tension. Barring that, it seems like the best way to sell an audience on an established relationship is to give them an excellent team dynamic (ala Zoe and Wash in Firefly, or Rickey and G-man in Liquor), so that the reader gets a clear sense of why these two people like each other, how they work together as a unit, and how staunchly they’ve got each other’s backs. I didn’t get much sense of that here.
Partly it’s because Cora is an asshole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally okay with that — she’s arrogant, aggressive, impulsive, and a full-on alcoholic, which would make her a tired stereotype if she were a man, but it’s a combination that takes on a very different (and rather interesting) feel in a female character. I just wish we’d been given more to like about her, in addition to all her less savory qualities.
Anyway, I read Dead of Winter because it turned out that She Returns From War was the sequel to this. I’ll give SRFW a spin later too.
Plot – 4/5 (brisk, with action and stuff)
Prose – 3/5 (utilitarian)
Characters – 3.5/5 (Cora is not lovable, but she is somewhat different)
Novelty – 3/5 (can “Supernatural in the old west, but with less drama” be called novel?)
Emotional engagement – 2/5 (nope, not feeling it)
Counter-recs, if you’re lookin’ for more weird west: The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek or A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files. (But only if you like a side of hot gay sex with your supernatural shit in the old west. And if you’re not — friend, you are reading the wrong books blog). Territory by Emma Bull, not queer but with interesting atmospherics; think magical realism in the Weird West.
I’m going to hold off from any extended analysis until I’ve read the last one, because there’s still a lot of plot stuff to get wrapped up, but Rope of Thorns was a worthy successor to Book of Tongues. A number of the things I’d said were vague in the first book get explained better here (re: the Aztec mythology and Rook’s motivations), Ed Morrow gets more developed as a character, and some kickass ladies join the cast.
There’s less of what I enjoyed the most about Book of Tongues — Chess and the Reverend being crazy about each other, all over each other — but my worry that their relationship would drop off the map was premature. Despite spending most of the book a couple hundred miles apart, they are still at the center of each other’s universes, for good or for ill.
And Chess Pargeter — brutal, callous, contrary Chess Pargeter — is shown to be that rarest of things: a character who can change.
The tragedy will be if Rook can’t do the same.
In other news, I’m also reading John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, which is enormously intellectually stimulating, but also very slow going, since his style makes the process more like gymnastics than reading. Hint: brush up on your Greek. (And Latin, and Slavic, and French, and Aramaic, and…)
I think a Guy Gavriel Kay would not go amiss for my next fiction book.
(This has been a hard book to review, because it's an extremely immersive reading experience, and after resurfacing it took me a couple days to be able to write about it objectively. So yeah, flawed or not, it's powerful stuff.)
A Book of Tongues is set a few years after the end of the Civil War, in an alternate world version of the wild west, in which some people are "hexslingers," magicians wielding power that they themselves can't always control. The nominal protagonist is a Pinkerton agent named Ed Morrow, working undercover to infiltrate the gang led by Reverend Asher Rook, former Confederate chaplain turned hexslinger, and his lover Chess Pargeter, gunslinger extraordinaire.
But, agonizingly, not perfect — the good, the bad, and the ugly.