The last time I was in a brick-and-mortar bookstore that wasn’t a Borders in the middle of liquidating—last year, which should tell you when I was last in a bookstore—I saw a couple of awesome-looking novels from Mike Resnick. Weird Westerns, steampunk trades that looked absolutely stellar, retelling old west history with steampunk and horror elements. Being broke, I couldn’t afford them, but oh how they tugged at my wallet—the weird west is an underrated and underused genre, so that caught my attention. A few weeks ago I lucked out and won both of them from The Little Red Reviewer’s giveaway. (Check out her blog, lots of SF&F goodness on there.) So, here’s the first review.
In an alternate timeline, the United States stops at the Mississippi. Frontier towns expand beyond that boundary, of course, such as Tombstone, Arizona, where pioneering genius Thomas Alva Edison has set up shop. With the assistance of Ned Buntline, Edison is working to study native sorcery while developing staple steampunk devices (trains, Gatling pistols, electric lights, cars, etc.) And somebody’s trying to kill him. Marshal Wyatt Earp is assigned to protect him, and brings in old friends Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday to help him out.
The Earps could use all the help they can get to keep the peace (and Edison safe), because nobody knows which of Edison’s numerous adversaries are the ones who tried to kill him last month. Are the Indian sorcerers Geronimo and Hook-Nose the ones seeking his death, vengeance for Edison’s snooping into their magics? What about Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, and the other outlaw Cowboys, cattle-rustlers and mercenary gunslingers? And what of those distressing rumors about The Thing That Was Johnny Ringo, former fastest gun in the west, who clawed his way out of his grave after being shot in the back, and was last seen heading towards Tombstone? One of those groups will throw down with the Earps and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral, and you’ll need to read the book to find out which of those varmints are after Edison.
Let’s play a fun drinking game, shall we? Take a shot every time a chapter starts with “Holliday.” Congratulations, now you have alcohol poisoning. Now, take a shot any time you see the word “brass;” two shots if it’s on the first page of a chapter. Congratulations, now you’re dead. I realize it’s a genre staple, but man did it jump out a lot. Also, while I’m picking nits. The first half of the book has a running subplot of Ned Buntline’s mechanical whores, which I found too over-the-top, and one scene in particular was pretty damn tasteless. I realize prostitution is a western staple—I’ve seen Unforgiven and Hell On Wheels—and it’s along the lines of the robot hookers in Futurama in terms of moral complexity, but it rankled me for some reason. A reflection of Resnick’s early days when he wrote sleaze novels, perhaps. (Also, the characters’ dialogue felt too “modern” at times, but that’s probably unavoidable.)
Resnick’s style is breezy and carefree, with a sharp wit and a good sense of plot progression. You can tell he’s done a bit of research on the O.K. Corral, especially since one of his appendices is a long list of texts on the subject. (Though according to the Wyatt Earp documentary I saw on PBS, he missed a few things… Doc Holliday is no longer an ornery sumbitch but a likeable wiseacre, and the Ike Clanton-Wyatt Earp conspiracy has been avoided by res-structuring the lead-up to the O.K. Corral shootout.) The characters all talk like modern movie characters, which broke the verisimilitude, but I can’t complain too much—the walking dead and Gatling pistols would have broken it regardless. So a very readable book, if a bit simple; a good-old enjoyable fast read, pulpy fun in a great setting.
I would like to lodge two complaints. First is that some of the elements in the book felt underused. The big one involves Bat Masterson; he ends up with Geronimo taking his “bat” epitaph taken literally, but that development exists mostly for the characters to crack a few puns and to give them the infrequent headache—not much happens with it. The “weird” and “west” never really connect; though they come close, it feels more like the overlap between “weird” and “west” on a Venn diagram. Next was the recurring implication that the mechanical whores had acquired sentience (or at least could process complex emotions), which also went nowhere. There’s a several other elements that I wish had had more screen time, and thus feel underutilized; just think of what could have happened had Resnick cut out half the scenes of the characters having breakfast. Here’s hoping the second book takes more advantage of the elements it introduces.
To be honest, The Buntline Special is a bit shallow—but it flies by on pulpy fun, making it a rewarding and fun book. There’s a lot of action, some neat sequences, and a great wit to it, and it was nice having a book I could just coast through. If you want some mindless but fun entertainment, it will fit that bill. Bonus points if you like the old west, steampunk, or undead cowboys; it’s got all of those in spades, even if they don’t take center stage. It’s nice to see a bit of established western mythology taken, finagled, and given a new lease on life, which is not an easy act to balance. Heck, it makes me want to go out and read a western. Thumbs up as entertainment; sometimes it’s nice to have a little fun. Buntline Special was quite a bit of fun. Not enough fun to be measured in barrels of monkeys, but more than other novels I’ve read this year.