Genre: Adult Horror/Western/Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: January 22 2013
Source: e-ARC from publisher
What do an Indian whose relatives are coyotes, a sheriff who has been hanged three times and lives to tell the tale, and a man who keeps his dead wife’s head in a box have in common? They are all characters in this quirky, horrific and magical Western filled with some of the most interesting characters I’ve ever run across. The publisher describes this book as “Buffy meets Deadwood,” and they aren’t wrong. As the ultimate Buffy fan, I found lots of Buffyesque material to keep me happy. Belcher’s first novel is masterfully written and constructed, and it’s a good thing it is. When I started reading I’ll have to admit I was wondering how on earth he was going to be able to bring the many seemingly disparate elements together, but not to worry! The Six-Gun Tarot will have you hooked from the beginning, and keep you reading up to the gory and yes, emotional ending.
Jim Negrey is a young man running from his past, trudging through the vast deserts of Nevada with his injured horse Promise and nearly dead from dehydration and heat exhaustion, when he is rescued by an Indian named Mutt and taken to the small mining town of Golgotha. Jim is on his way to find a “near mythical railroad job in Virginia City,” but when he arrives in Golgotha he decides to stay for a while. It isn’t long before he discovers that the residents of Golgotha are hiding secrets, and the biggest and most terrifying secret of all may be buried deep under Argent Mountain, the location of a now-defunct silver mine. When the good folk of Golgotha start to go missing, it’s up to Sheriff Jon Highfather, his trusty deputy Mutt, a brave woman named Maude, and Jim himself to stop the evil thing that just might be trying to break free and take over humanity.
That’s about the best summary I can come up with. On the surface this seems like just another good versus evil plot, but what makes this story different are the characters. Each one is painstakingly drawn and most are given detailed backstories. Jim’s story is particularly interesting. He’s running from the law, but he’s the kind of man who gives his horse the last bit of water from his canteen. Jim carries an eye made of jade, a peculiar object that used to belong to his father. The tale behind the eye plays an important part in the story, and Belcher slowly reveals the details of how he came to have it in a series of flashbacks. Just about every character in the book is intriguing and likable, except for the bad guys, of course, who are exceptionally bad.
But my favorite character is Maude, a woman with her own secrets who carries a flask of blood around her neck, blood that defines who she is and will ultimately determine the future of Golgotha. And here’s where the Buffy comparison comes in. Maude is descended from a long line of women warriors who are taught to carry “The Load,” and eventually pass their skills and knowledge on to another girl. This reminded me so much of Joss Whedon’s Slayer mythology that I was immediately drawn into Maude’s life as she trains her daughter Constance to eventually take over The Load. We also meet Maude’s grandmother Bonnie through flashbacks as she trains a young Maude to fulfill her destiny. I have to admit I wanted to read more about Maude and I wished her character had been more prominent. Here’s a wonderful quote during a scene where Maude and Constance are training:
The knives hummed from her hand like angry hornets, straight toward her daughter’s heart.
Belcher fills his story with a melting pot of religious and social groups that not only add to the craziness of the plot, but really show the amount of research he must have done to make these elements believable. Golgotha is home to a group of Mormons who live in luxury on the hill, squatters who have little or nothing and eke out a living on the fringes of town, the Chinese, or “Johnny’s” as they are referred to, who live in Johnny Town and keep to themselves, not to mention the whores, Protestants, merchants and other colorful characters that make up the fabric of a small western town in the 1800s. In one poignant chapter we learn that Mayor Harry Pratt, an upstanding Mormon with two wives, is in love with a piano player named Ringo. Swirling around all of this is a growing evil buried somewhere under the silver mine on Argent Mountain.
When the evil shows itself, watch out. Belcher adds enough gore to rival the best of Stephen King. I might even go so far as to compare the evil in The Six-Gun Tarot to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…but I don’t want to give away its best secrets. Even chapters that seem to come out of nowhere, like the ones that take place between two angels as they discuss the fate of humanity, eventually tie into the big picture. Belcher is a skilled weaver, as each dangling story strand is eventually tucked in and tied up nicely.
Despite the horrors in The Six-Gun Tarot, both human and supernatural, there is an underlying humanity that grounds this story. When I get to the end of a story and the author has made me cry, I know I’ve just finished a five-star book. What more can you ask of fiction?
Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. You can purchase The Six-Gun Tarot here.