This is the first of three novels from Tor, in collaboration with Visionary Comics, to revolve around the 'Deadlands' role-playing game, and Jonathan Maberry sets a high standard for Jeff Mariotte and Seanan McGuire to live up to in books two and three. I'm used to tie-in editions being short and insubstantial cash-ins, but this is an inch-thick tome which romps gloriously through almost five hundred pages. It's not short, it's far from insubstantial and I loved it.
Then again, I'm a sucker for the weird west, a niche genre that's gradually finding itself. I've never played the source game, which apparently has sold in the millions, but I've read a bunch of books and watched a bunch of films set in the weird west and that setting is always enough to generate some interest, even when they turn out notably weak (hello, 'Gallowwalkers' with Wesley Snipes). The Wild West was always a place where anything could happen; why not *really* play with 'anything?' After all, Robert E. Howard was doing that eighty years ago.
There's very little plot to speak of in 'Ghostwalkers,' just inevitability that's set within an imaginative framework. Maberry takes the approach that the tough guy is the tough guy entirely because he keeps doing what needs to be done even as the odds against him continue to rack up to ludicrous levels. There are little reveals here and there as minor subplots resolve, but the majority of the book is merely Grey Torrance, gunfighter, failing utterly to retreat from a fight that isn't his and he shouldn't be able to win. That makes him an appropriate hero for this sort of material, but he's hardly the most subtle hero in the book. He has one gear and it's forward. 'Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.'
That doesn't mean that he's boring or insubstantial. I got a real kick out of his haunted character design. He's a soldier who made one mistake during the War Between the States that cost the lives of his men. Now they follow him as he heads west in a vain attempt to escape his guilt. 'Ghostwalkers' is set in California, so he's made his way entirely across the country but they're still close behind him, following his trail. And as freaky as his ghosts are, they're soon to become the least of his worries. The animated corpses of the men he's killing now are a little higher up the scale and... well, just how much Jonathan Maberry throws into his path you'll have to read the book to find out.
This is an alternate history, one in which the Great Quake of 1868 has taken the state of California, sheared much of it off into the ocean and turned much of the rest upside down. Out from the bowels of that churned earth came a substance known as ghost rock, a mysterious power source to make weapons generations more dangerous and to, well, raise the dead and bend them to your will.
Torrance quickly teams up with an Oglala named Looks Away, grandson to Red Cloud, who had won back the tribal lands of the Sioux to form a powerful nation in this fractured landscape. Unfortunately with ghost rock in the hands of many dangerous men, 'powerful' becomes a relative term. They move through California together until they reach the Maze, a badlands described appropriately in the back cover blurb as 'a lawless labyrinth of sea-flooded canyons'. The town they reach is appropriately called Paradise Falls and it's where their journey west stops.
What they find is a traditional sort of situation for tough guys in a wild west story. The townsfolk of Paradise Falls are suffering under the crooked thumb of Aleksander Deray, a local land baron who has bought up the water rights of the town and everywhere else for miles around, rights which he's now enforcing through the guns of the sheriff's department, which are on his payroll. Of course, it isn't remotely that simple, not least because the most prominent objector, Jenny Pearl, looks exactly like Annabelle, Grey's dead sweetheart back east.
I really don't want to spoil what Deray is going to throw into the path of Torrance and Looks Away, not to mention Jenny and Dr. Percival Saint, local mad scientist of renown, who had worked with Alfred Nobel in Sweden and is a dab hand with putting ghost rock to spectacular use; but I don't think I can go any further forward without spoiling that discovery. Let's just say that corpses animated by ghost rock and forced to do things against their will are just the beginning and there's a long road to the end.
The biggest success of this book is the setting, which I presume comes not from Jonathan Maberry's imagination but the original 'Deadlands' game. It's a peach of a location, ripe for any number of weird and wild adventures; no wonder it's so successful. However, even if Maberry was gifted with a heck of a start for this novel, he surely took it and ran with it. I adored the progression of nightmares, which keep on coming without ever seeming rushed or forced.
The weaknesses are mostly common to the western genre so probably won't be seen as weaknesses by aficionados. The dynamics are simple, even if the characters might have complications. We're never surprised by where the novel takes us, unless it's to how spectacularly far in certain directions. Even if the lead character carries the ambiguous name of Grey, he and his Sioux friend are clearly the good guys of the story who will fight for the righteous people of Paradise Falls against the bad guys: one boss villain, one prominent bad guy, their collective henchmen and... no, I refuse to draw myself into spoiler territory.
I highly recommend 'Ghostwalkers' to anyone with a penchant for the weird west, especially those with old school pulp tastes. If you get as much of a kick out of this as I did, you'll probably want to follow up immediately with books two and three, which you can't because they aren't written yet. If you're really desperate, Maberry is far from a new author, with twenty novels or more to his name in a number of series and a number of genres. Based on snap research, his 'Pine Deep' trilogy may be a better follow up to this than the 'Joe Ledger' series of thrillers for which he may be best known. ~~ Hal C F Astell