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…
Author: R.S. Belcher
Genre: Western, Horror, Speculative Fiction, Historical Fantasy
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!)**
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
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- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩