I was offered a free copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
When I read the description of this novel, I must say I was intrigued. It’s a Western. But not just any Western. It’s a steampunk Western. I have not read a lot of steampunk (some blogs and short-stories) but I am intrigued by the concept, the art, the clothes… Oh, and there are zombies. OK, I could not resist. I generally like Westerns and historical fiction set in that period, but the unlikely combination of the three elements proved impossible to resist. And it did pay off.
I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the plot, as it is full of surprises, and although some you might see coming, I assure you there’s plenty to keep the brain ticking and the pages turning. James Creed (“Bodacious” indeed) is a great character, although we only get a glimpse of the true man before he is killed and then… resuscitated. Anna, the madam of the bordello the House of Amber Doves, has something hidden in the basement, and she is an inventor, and also… Well, let’s say she hides more than her scientific knowledge and talents. We have Anna’s lover, Jonny, who was injured and now is also part of her experiments, although loyal, loving, and also a great inventor. There is a bounty hunter, Rob Cantrell, who, although morally grey at times, becomes a part of the team we root for. We have a variety of baddies, from psychopaths to business types ready to sacrifice anybody for an advantage and for the power to harvest all the knowledge, legal and not. Although not all the characters are psychologically complex, in most cases we learn what makes them tick, and discover that most of them hide interesting background stories and hidden motives for what they do.
The story, told in the third person but through a variety of character’s points of view (including Creed, Anna, Jonny, Cantrell, and some of the baddies), is set in a fascinating alternative version of historical Santa Cruz. Imagine that there is a compound (the ether) that can be used for the construction of automatons, cyborgs, healing units, and ultimately units that can bring the dead back to life. Imagine that human beings can be enhanced with something akin to bionic technology (yes, I know, but imagine that happened in the late XIX century). Imagine that a company has the monopoly of all these inventions (Tesla works for that corporation as well) and anybody who tries to invent or commercialize such things is breaking the law and can become an outlaw. And imagine that kind of technology in the hands of a crime syndicate in the old West. Yes, the combination of crime and technology, as we well know, can be very dangerous, and, unfortunately, not all the experiments bringing back the dead go well. Although that causes violence, mayhem, and deaths, we also have the good and useful automatons (or steelies, as they are called), the automated pets, Creed acquires a pet cyborg coyote later in the story, and we have undead cats and zombie rats… And the characters are not the only ones hiding secrets. Santa Cruz also has a few aces up its sleeves and it is an important protagonist of the story. Yes, not a moment’s boredom.
The alternating points of view help us get more perspectives into the story and understand better the motives behind some of the characters’ surprising actions. And although it is not always pleasant, it is interesting to see the action from the point of view of the bad characters as well (as some of their reasons are not always bad). Matters of morality, spirituality, personal versus community interest, and family ties are also part of this story that should satisfy Western lovers (yes, there are plenty of gun and fist fights, shootings, traps, wild rides), steam-punk enthusiasts, and although the zombie angle is a bit more subtle (well, at least for a lot of the book), I don’t think those who are into zombie novels will be disappointed either.
The story flows well, the language fits in with the imagined historical period (I am not sure what historical fiction readers would think, but my guess is that they might find it interesting), and there is enough description of the places and the inventions to make us feel as if we were there, without unduly slowing the action. As a doctor, I could not help but wonder about some of the actual experiments (Frankenstein is mentioned more than once), but sometimes you just need to go with the flow. There are lots of characters, though, so I recommend paying close attention when reading it. I did enjoy the ending of the story (well, I imagine there will be more books) but no spoilers here.
The end note of the author explains the peculiarities of the Santa Cruz of the book (the author hails from there) and also shares how the book came to be. The story of the startup he organized to fund the book is fascinating in its own right, and he explains how as perks for participating in the project, some people got to have characters named after them, including Cantrell, the bounty hunter, and in some cases, even helped write the part. A fascinating story inside another one.
A great mix of genres, recommended to those who love to try something original and don’t fear to tread outside of the normal paths. For Western, steampunk, and zombie lovers. Highly recommended.