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The Six-Gun Tarot (Golgotha) Hardcover – January 22, 2013
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Keep an eye on Belcher because if this, his first novel, is any indication, he will be a must-read. The Six-Gun Tarot is nothing short of fantastic: a complex page-turner with philosophical, metaphysical, and mystical underpinnings. Placing his tale in Nevada in 1869, Belcher deftly describes a complex cast of characters and a setting so sharp you can feel the dust in your mouth. Beyond 40-Mile Desert lies Golgotha, a small town that draws its inhabitants from the unnatural: a store owner who talks to the head of his deceased wife, who answers back; a sheriff with the scars of a noose around his neck; a boy with a magical jade eye; and a townswoman who is a member of a group of female assassins. Besides the peculiar townsfolk, there is an evil brewing, and unless the undead Sheriff can defeat it, Golgotha will be no more. --Alison Downs
“Belcher draws readers into a fascinating world that reads like a mashup of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Deadwood. Part western, part urban fantasy, part coming-of-age tale, Belcher's story balances all pieces perfectly.” ―RT Book Reviews
“Against the backdrop of Chinese and Mormon mythology and the Civil War, with a bit of Frankenstein for color, the mix of theology, frontier justice, and zombies is merely cover for an intense and irreverent exploration of good, evil, and free will.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A jaw-dropping first novel that explodes across genre lines. Wild, gritty, insanely inventive and a hell of a lot of fun!” ―Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of Dust & Decay and Assassin's Code
“A steampunk'd romp through a Mythic West drenched in blood and magic.” ―Rosemary Edghill, coauthor of The Shadow of Albion
“If you want to see what Weird Westerns are all about, there's no better place to start than The Six-Gun Tarot.” ―Mike Resnick, award-wining author of Santiago
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Heavenly conflict, steampunk Frankenstein-like whatever it is, Cthulu, were-something Indian myth, secret societies, gay cowboys. It's got it all crammed in to a confusing digital sausage that suffers for it. The POV changes from the (what you think is the main character) Jim so awkwardly that you'll find yourself confused about whose story this is. The prose is full of Wild West sayings, curses, and slang that pull you out of the story as you try to decipher them.
If you are of Chinese decent you'll love the insane amount of racism directed towards early Chinese American immigrants. Top notch stuff there. But don't worry, every chapter or so someone says something akin to "they aren't that bad" or "some of the guys I know are Chinese."
The concept and plot are an idea I can get behind, but the story is just too bloated. Relegating some of the POV characters to the background would have given the author more time to explore the more intriguing ones.
The best part of this book, in my opinion, was the characters. I got very fond of Maude, the banker’s wife, recipient of an impressive female heritage, and of Mutt, the insultingly but by no means inaccurately named deputy sheriff. Jim, the young man who carries a strange legacy from his dead father; Augie and Gillian, a middle-aged couple developing love after great loss; Holly, the frustrated wife of the secretly-gay mayor; and Jon Highfather, the sheriff with the rather-too-obvious name, were also enjoyable. The author slowed my bonding with these people, however, by switching among them so frequently in different chapters.
The writing was very good, particularly in its similes and metaphors. Here, for instance, is the book’s first line: “The Nevada sun bit into Jim Negrey like a rattlesnake…. His mouth was full of the rusty taste of old fear.” And shortly afterward: “The pain was thick and settled over his skull like lead syrup.” The plot moves along briskly, too, albeit somewhat jerkily because of all the changes in point of view, and there is plenty of action and suspense.
My only quarrel with the book was that I think the Apocalypse/Ultimate Chaos Demon (here it’s called the Greate Olde Wurm) theme has been used way too much lately (maybe I’ve just seen too many TV shows like Sleepy Hollow), and this author didn’t really do anything new with it. I’m also not quite sure where his theology ends up: the chaos creature is clearly the Ultimate Bad, but its opposite, presented as more or less like the Judeo-Christian deity, is not portrayed very kindly either. The female side of divinity occupies a pivotal, but not entirely clear, role between them.
I haven’t decided whether I’ll rejoin the occupants of Golgotha for the sequel, Shotgun Arcana, but if you like “Weird West” stories and don’t mind yet one more apocalypse, I recommend that you give this first book a try.
First off, this is a very dark and grim book. That happens to work for me, but it may not be for everyone. It's set in a town in the Old West called Golgotha -- the sort of place where people go when they don't want to be found, or when they've been running from something else (there are a lot of Mormon families there who fled persecution, for example, and there are a handful of individuals who were featured in their very own "wanted" posters, but that's definitely not the extent of it). The town formed around a (silver) mine, has a disagreeable and seemingly-greedy saloon owner with an interesting past, is set in the years after the Civil War, has a man with a medical degree who is rather overly interested in dead bodies, and has what appears to be a sizable Chinese population, so I thought of the HBO series Deadwood almost immediately. That comparison never really left my mind as I read the book, although of course there was never anything supernatural going on in the TV series.
The town is diverse, as I've hinted at, with Civil War veterans, Native Americans, African Americans, Mormons, at least one German immigrant, and more. And the mythologies drawn on are also diverse. I think everything works together fairly well, and the explanation of why makes sense, although that explanation doesn't come until very late in the book. If you are not familiar with the very basics of Mormon theology, I might suggest brushing up by reading a page or two about it on Wikipedia; certain elements that come into play later in the story will make more sense that way.
There are a lot of POV characters. This is both good and bad. The book is generally written in a third-person limited style, but occasionally, we experience POV switches in the middle of scenes. I wish a little more attention had been paid here; you think you're in one character's head but then you're reading the thoughts of another, and it can get a tiny bit confusing.
That being said, we were far enough into many of the POV characters' heads that we really learn a lot about them and find that they are quite complex. This is especially true of Sheriff Highfather, Malachi Bick, the Mayor, Sheriff's Deupty Mutt, the young teenager named Jim, and Maude Stapleton. They ALL suffer conflicts, many have done or continue to do things they're not proud of, but they shine through in Golgotha's hour of need, to the best of their abilities. I did notice that Jim, who was supposed to have been relatively young, and who had been expelled from school, made some statements near the end of the book in language that seemed out of character. However, for the most part, I thought people's voices were distinct.
The villains were rather one-dimensional. This didn't necessarily occur to me while I was reading, though -- only after the fact. You don't know them or their stories, for the most part, and their motivations are clouded by outside influences. Nonetheless, the sense of danger for the protagonists were real, and I got caught up enough in the protagonists' struggle that the villains mattered less at the time. That being said, I would have liked to have seen the author further characterize the two main antagonists because he did a good job of it with the protagonists, and I think he would have had some interesting things to say.
One thing that takes a bit of getting used to is the temporal shifting that's going on. We start the book with Jim and his horse out in the desert, nearly dying. This is a great place to start -- Jim will soon be entering Golgotha for the first time, so we learn about the town along with him. And he's in danger, which is a good hook. But then there's an early flashback to Jim's past to tell a story. The story does need to be told, but the timing and method of its telling are a little contrived. There are a LOT of other flashbacks in nearly every storyline. (If you made it through Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, you'll have no trouble with this.) The flashbacks do serve to develop characters further, but they also slow the story down. I will say, though, that the flashbacks become fewer and farther between near the end, and the book's climax is exciting. I was worried for many of the main characters in the final scene -- I thought the danger was quite real, and I wasn't sure whether everyone would make it out.
You could read this as a standalone although there is a sequel that just came out. The main story is resolved which is nice for people who don't like cliffhangers, although there are a few hints of things that could come to pass in future novels.
I see this is listed as "steampunk" on some sites. I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. Sure, the setting is the Old West and there are guns and such available. There's even a mad scientist type with some capabilities involving electricity. But the book really has a lot of elements in common with other types of fantasy (magical artifacts, battles of celestial beings, mythology, ancient secret societies, etc.).
In the end, I rushed to finish this book because I wanted to find out what happened next. If I make time to read when I have other things to do, that's usually a sign that I'm enjoying myself. It's not a perfect book, by any means, but I ended up enjoying the reading experience quite a bit.