Today we are mixing things up a bit! Both Ana and I read The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher, and we both had different interpretations and reactions to the book. So, to give a dual perspective, Ana reviewed the book over at Kirkus’ Science Fiction & Fantasy blog, while I’m posting my take here…

The Six Gun TarotTitle: The Six-Gun Tarot

Author: R.S. Belcher

Genre: Western, Horror, Speculative Fiction, Historical Fantasy

Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardcover: 368 Pages

Buffy meets Deadwood in a dark, wildly imaginative historical fantasy

Nevada, 1869: Beyond the pitiless 40-Mile Desert lies Golgotha, a cattle town that hides more than its share of unnatural secrets. The sheriff bears the mark of the noose around his neck; some say he is a dead man whose time has not yet come. His half-human deputy is kin to coyotes. The mayor guards a hoard of mythical treasures. A banker’s wife belongs to a secret order of assassins. And a shady saloon owner, whose fingers are in everyone’s business, may know more about the town’s true origins than he’s letting on.

A haven for the blessed and the damned, Golgotha has known many strange events, but nothing like the primordial darkness stirring in the abandoned silver mine overlooking the town. Bleeding midnight, an ancient evil is spilling into the world, and unless the sheriff and his posse can saddle up in time, Golgotha will have seen its last dawn…and so will all of Creation.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone (with potential for a series?)

How did I get this book: e-ARC from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): e-ARC (via NetGalley)

Why did I read this book: The Six-Gun Tarot had me at “Buffy meets Deadwood” – I instantly fell in love the cover and the title, too. Oh, right, and the synopsis itself sounded pretty fantastic. Needless to say, I was very keen to dive into this new genre-bending novel.

**A WARNING: Some slight spoilers are revealed in the discussion below. (Nothing devastating and nothing that will ruin your reading experience, but a heads up to the wary!)**

Review/Discussion:

In the desert town of Golgotha, Nevada, nothing is quite what it seems – especially not its inhabitants. A group of unlikely allies – a boy avenging his father’s death, a skinwalker that has become more human than coyote, a Mayor that guards a secret that would ruin him, a wife and mother who is a trained and honed killer – are drawn together to stand against a stirring, ancient evil.

While the premise of The Six-Gun Tarot is somewhat familiar (i.e. band of motley heroes standing against an unfathomable darkness), the last thing one could do is call R.S. Belcher’s debut novel derivative or boring. This is one hell of a book, packed with a bevy of unique and memorable characters, deep backstories, and tangled subplots. It’s also western that blends fantastical and horror elements beautifully – and yes, as the blurb says, it’s kind of like Buffy and Deadwood (in that Golgotha is a veritable hellmouth, and the story takes place in 1869 Nevada). In short, The Six-Gun Tarot is an overwhelming, genre-spanning read, and though it’s not without its flaws (and discussion points), I truly enjoyed and appreciated this book.

The most impressive thing about The Six-Gun Tarot, to me, are the characters that comprise the cast of this book. They are varied, different, and nuanced. More importantly, these characters provoke and subvert some of the common tropes and stock figures that define westerns and fantasy overall. Such tropes include:

The idea that women are limited to becoming wives or whores, how they are imprisoned by their marriages or constraints of society – this idea is presented in the context of the book and then challenged by the character of Maude and her grandmother (and even, to some extent, one of the Mayor’s wives, Holly). These women are deadly, trained, and powerful; they are the descendants of Lilith, the demoness and temptress, the first woman who had the audacity to strike out on her own and challenge the male order as preordained by “the Creator.” I LOVE that it is Maude, the flask of the blood of her predecessors (including Lilith), that is able to save herself, her daughter, and heal the Earth of the poisoned darkness that the Great Wyrm has unleashed.1

Another challenged stereotype is seen with the character of the Mayor – a major character in the book who is homosexual and a religious practicing Mormon. He is referred to and verbally attacked at times as “dirty,” as a sodomite, and so on – but he is also one of the main characters and is able to thwart the great evil in Golgotha because of the strength of his faith and belief in his religion (in a time when religion thinks of homosexuality as Evil/Wrong/Unnatural!). At the climactic showdown, Mayor Pratt is able to raise a honest-to-God magical sword by the strength of his faith. (I’m an athiest, but I can appreciate this very much.)

Then, there’s the portrayal of Mutt, who is belittled by many townspeople because he is an Indian and a skinwalker/son of the Coyote, and who is actually CALLED Mutt (a derogatory name by ANY measure). This seems intensely problematic, until we see that the name is questioned (by Maude of all people, hell yes!) that “Mutt” is a label that has little do with who he is. Mutt takes ownership of himself and his name, and I think this is effective and powerful. More than that, Mutt is actually arguably the main character of this book! I love that Mutt is caught between two worlds, that he chooses to stay with his human ilk in Golgotha, and is the one, ultimately, that is able to take down the Darkness (with Maude’s help).2

Finally, the last talking point I want to bring up is that of the religious aspect of the book. At first glance, it does seem overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian, as everything is framed in the context of a Christian God, with Heaven and Hell and the archangels and angels and so on and so forth. Except that it’s not really – the Christian God is just one God, the world just one world in a universe that has many co-existing pantheons. I love that Ch’eng (a Chinese power player in Golgotha, and a character that does NOT speak in broken English/Chinese dialect, THANK YOU ALL THE GODS IN ALL THE UNIVERSES) explains to Jim the true gift passed on to his father, that there is more than just the Christian dichotomy going on. The “Creator” in this book is not a supremely powerful or omniscient creature; instead he is a failed, flawed entity that is just one of many different gods and realities – the Coyotes and their gods know it, Ch’eng and his understanding of the world challenges it.

Now, these things said, The Six-Gun Tarot is not a perfect book. I wish that there was MORE about Jim (the boy who walks the desert alone with a horse named Promise, with a jade eye in his pocket, and whom I haven’t even really talked about but remains one of my favorite characters in the entire book) and about Ch’eng. I liked Auggie and Clay’s stories (especially Clay’s creepy end with Gert’s head *shudders*), but could have lived without some of those chapters. I loved the glorious Lovecraftian image of the Great Wyrm, the black sludge, the possessed (ok, zombified) unfortunates of Golgotha, and hell, I even loved the interludes from the angel Biqa and Lucifer throughout. But you put all of this together and it is…well, overwhelming. The Six-Gun Tarot is dense and fascinating, but even though everything is really fucking cool, it could have been cut down and honed to make a stronger, better book. There are so many characters, so many different storylines and flashbacks and tangents that it the novel feels bloated and overlong. I love the individual characters of Jim, Mutt, Maude, Biqa/Bick, Sheriff Highwater, but there is so much that is happening at the same time that we lose track of these characters – and by the time we FINALLY get back to the character arc in question, so much has happened, it takes a while to process and remember where everything left off. I also was not crazy about Holly (one of Mayor Pratt’s wives) and her role in the book as the seductress/Dark Madonna.3 I don’t think this role was necessary, kind of came off as gratuitous/problematic, the only real thing I took big issue with in the book.

Criticisms said, there is so much material in The Six-Gun Tarot, so much wonderfulness that I can’t really fault it. It is an incredibly ambitious book (especially for a debut novel!) with shades of Lovecraft’s Cthulu, of Gaiman’s Lucifer, of King’s The Gunslinger, and I truly loved every second of the ride.

So there you have it. Another split review here at Casa de Smugglers! Both Ana and I encourage you to try out The Six-Gun Tarot and would love to hear what YOU think.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

The Nevada sun bit into Jim Negrey like a rattlesnake. It was noon. He shuffled forward, fighting gravity and exhaustion, his will keeping him upright and moving. His mouth was full of the rusty taste of old fear; his stomach had given up complaining about the absence of food days ago. His hands wrapped around the leather reins, using them to lead Promise ever forward. They were a lifeline, helping him to keep standing, keep walking.

Promise was in bad shape. A hard tumble down one of the dunes in the 40-Mile Desert was forcing her to keep weight off her left hind leg. She was staggering along as best she could, just like Jim. He hadn’t ridden her since the fall yesterday, but he knew that if he didn’t try to get up on her and get moving, they were both as good as buzzard food soon. At their present pace, they still had a good three or four days of traveling through this wasteland before they would reach Virginia City and the mythical job with the railroad.

Right now, he didn’t care that he had no money in his pockets. He didn’t care that he only had a few tepid swallows of water left in his canteen or that if he managed to make it to Virginia City he might be recognized from a wanted poster and sent back to Albright for a proper hanging. Right now, all he was worried about was saving his horse, the brown mustang that had been his companion since he was a child.

Promise snorted dust out of her dark nostrils. She shook her head and slowed.

“Come on, girl,” he croaked through a throat that felt like it was filled with broken shale. “Just a little ways longer. Come on.”

You can read the full chapter online HERE.

Rating: 8 – Excellent

Reading Next: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

Buy the Book:

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Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, kobo, google play, sony & iBooks

  1. To Ana’s point about essentialism and femininity – I agree that this is fodder for discussion and further thought. Maude is presented in this book as a mother, the Daughters of Lilith is an order ordained by blood, and motherhood is a huge, central pillar in this book. Which, yes, could be interpreted as ascribing to a gender essentialist view. That said, motherhood IS a part of being female; it is in fact a unique female quality. I don’t see anything wrong with having Maude protect her daughter, I don’t think she’s brought low by motherhood, and motherhood does not solely define her as a character. While I do have some problems with the depiction of Holly in the book (as well as Gerta), the other female characters (“Aunt” Annie and the surprisingly forward Gillian, who puts the moves on Auggie and is neither whore nor mother) provide alternate lenses and interpretations.
  2. On that note, I love that the traditional hero type characters (the shoe-in here being Sheriff Highwater – handsome, mysterious, caucasian) are NOT the main characters in the book. Really, the stars of the novel are Mutt, Maude, fifteen-year-old Jim, Mayor Harry Pratt, and Bick. I love that the romantic attraction in the book is between Maude and Mutt (and Ringo and Harry), too.
  3. Think Army of Darkness, when Sheila becomes Evil!Sheila (you know, “I may be bad, but I feel good”), except less comical and more problematic.
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9 Responses to Book Review/Discussion: The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

  1. Jo says:

    I always appreciate the honest reviews you have — while I’m not sure if I’ll be picking this book up for a read right away, I did think it sounded interesting. I ordered it for my library’s collection, so I guess I’ll see how other readers respond to it. :)

  2. [...] Book Review/Discussion: The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher [...]

  3. I expected to hate this book. I mean, I hate hate hate westerns with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. And I hate bloated stories and the minute I saw how many storylines there were in this book I was sure I’d hate it, that it would be rambling, that it would be boring

    I was wrong, so very very wrong. The characters were amazing, the challenging of so many tropes, stereotypes stunned me. Was it perfect? Well no – but I’ve never seen a western come this close :)

  4. Gregory L. says:

    ….
    Hello,

    I also had the opportunity to read this via netgalley and am really of two minds about it. I liked so many of the viewpoint characters and felt that though much of their story was told in reflection and flashbacks it was an overall effective way to define and endeer many of them to me. I enjoyed his blending and use of multiple cultures and folklores in his world building and his not so sneeky inclusion of pulp fiction references brought smiles to my face almost as much as many of his characters moved me emotionally.

    The chapters that defined a bit too solidly much of the “angelic” mythos he was using I was not too hot on and his use of the character of Holly Pratt to be particularly troubling at times but at the same time in tune with the pulp fiction nature of the book.

    His inclusion of many different cultures and multi-culturasl characters was great… overall I find I would reccomend the book but would say I found it audacious and slightly flawed but a good read for the start of the new year…

  5. Gregory L. says:

    Also wanted to add I will be reviewing it this weekend….

  6. Sarah N. says:

    I haven’t read this book, so I don’t have any opinions on it, but defining motherhood as a uniquely “female” quality and something that “IS a part of being female” is a mix of transphobic and sexist, so I’m calling that out.

    If you are born with a uterus, assigned female at birth, and identify as female/a woman, you do not have to become a mother. If you are assigned male at birth but identify as female, you can become a mother. If you identify as genderfluid but want to be considered a mother when you adopt/have kids, you can.

    I’m sure you didn’t mean it offensively, but I’m so over “nurturing” and “mother” being defining characteristics for ciswomen only/a state that women have to achieve to truly be women.

  7. RS Belcher says:

    Hi Thea,
    Thank you so much for the nice review. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I posted a reply to Ana’s review as well and I wanted to thank both of you so much for your time in reading and reviewing Six-Gun. Here is my reply to Ama’s review and to some gentleman who seems to think she shouldn’t have posted it on Kirkus (to which I disagree). Thanks again and take care, Rod (RS Belcher)

    Hi Ana,
    I wanted to thank you and Thea for the reviews of my book! I found your review to be very thought provoking and I enjoyed it.
    I would love to discuss your take on my book sometime, if you would like; maybe do an interview on Book Smuggler or here on Kirkus.
    For the record, in regards to the appropriateness of your review here, I think you have every right, and a duty as a reviewer, to post how my book made you feel, good or bad, in any venue that you want. Books are mediums of ideas and ideas provoke our core inner concepts and beliefs. If you read something and it contradicts or challenges those beliefs, then that is what you came away from the book with and that is completely valid to discuss in a review. I’m very glad my book got you and Thea discussing and debating. I’d rather be told my book was thought-provoking, and not loved by everyone, than produce a bland work that you forget ten minutes after you put it down.
    I knew when I wrote Six-Gun, there would be parts that provoked discussion and even controversy. I didn’t set out to do that- Honest! I just was writing my dark-ity, dark, dark horror-western, but when you step into the arena of ideas for things like religion, politics, sexuality and gender roles, you are not going to please everyone– if you do then you wrote meaningless crap (see the above-mentioned popcorn).
    For the record, I am not a Christian, I’m not sure what I am exactly, but I do enjoy discussing spirituality and having my ideas and concepts challenged and tested, especially in as intelligent and civil a way as you did in your review.
    Again, Thank you, and Thea for taking the time to read my book. I hope, if I’m lucky enough to have more books published, that you will review them as well and give me your honest opinion. It keeps me honest! Take care, Rod (RS Belcher)

  8. Micah says:

    I had been debating picking up this book, and now, I think I’m going to go ahead and grab it. It sounds exciting, and your review gives me hope that it will be better than I’m expecting.

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