I mentioned in my review of 'Ghostwalkers', (click here for the review) the first of three novels from Tor to tie-in to the 'Deadlands' role-playing game, that author Jonathan Maberry had set a high standard for his succeeding authors to follow. I am very happy to report that Jeff Mariotte rose to that challenge and delivered another glorious romp into the weird west. Next up will be Seanan McGuire's contribution to wrap up the set. I do hope that the three books will be successful enough to prompt Tor to commission more.
I should add that these books don't follow on from each other, they merely share a universe. For those coming in fresh with book two, which is a perfectly valid approach to take, 'Deadlands' takes the wild west that we know and shakes it up just a little, quite literally as a matter of fact, as half of California is underwater, sheared off by the big one of 1868. Rather than taking a steampunk approach to advance the period's technology with ever more intricate clockwork and steam power, a mysterious mineral called ghost rock has been exposed and it powers things like nothing else.
'Ghostwalkers' focused strongly on ghost rock, which also has the unfortunate side effect of raising the dead, but Mariotte curiously avoids it in 'Thunder Moon Rising' in favour of a rather different source for his monsters. And monsters there are, even if we wonder for quite some time whether we'll get to meet any for more than a moment.
One does show his face early on, right after murdering a whore named Daisie upstairs at Senora Soto's saloon and brothel, but he promptly vanishes into the night, leaving only Tucker Bringloe, the resident drunk in the southern Arizona town of Carmichael, with a good look at his inhuman visage. Well, Tucker and us, because that's surely him on the front cover in the absolutely stunning painting by Aaron J. Riley. Town Marshal Turville rounds up a posse, of course, which he insists Bringloe join, and they all head off in hot pursuit. What's odd is that we stay in hot pursuit for much longer than we might expect.
Mariotte follows Maberry's lead in a number of regards. He knows he has a lot of pages to fill so he takes his time, exercising a great deal of patience as he explores a variety of characters with admirable depth. However, he also keeps his actual story very simple, leaving the complexity for the people of Carmichael and those occupying its surrounding ranches and the nearby Fort Huachuca. As deeply as he delves into these characters, he never forgets that there's a lead, who is inexorably dragged through the story by the power of art. If a protagonist makes things happen, Tuck isn't one of those because things happen to him a lot more than he happens to them.
I'd have to go back to 'Ghostwalkers' to make a proper comparison, but it felt like Maberry's story was a little more involved, albeit still threadbare for a 400-page tome, while Mariotte's characterisations are deeper and more satisfying. Their respective leads have so much in common that I'd be hard pressed if I had to choose between them: just as Maberry's haunted gunfighter, Grey Torrance, has to deal not only with the supernatural threat in front of him but with the one rising up out of his past, so does Mariotte's Tuck Bringloe have to deal with his own demons as much as the ones that array against him. However, I only remember a few key players in 'Ghostwalkers', while I remember a whole host of them in 'Thunder Moon Rising'. It merely takes a while for the key players to emerge from their peers and for their strands of plot to merge.
If there's a real complaint to be made against Mariotte, it's that this weird west yarn doesn't seem weird enough for far too long. It gets there, trust me, but it remains a western with eventual weirdness rather than the thoroughly weird west story we might expect. At least the weirdness is the canvas on which the western is painted, but the painting always covers the canvas and things of darkness only creep through at the most important moments.
And with a complaint made, I'll follow that up with a compliment. Mariotte knows southern Arizona well and he brings the Huachuca mountains and the surrounding area capably to life. This is a big state and it had a lot fewer people in it back then when it was just a territory. Mariotte gives us the town of Carmichael, some ranches and a fort but, more overtly, he gives us the impression of space; small town life might seem big to people living it, but it starts to feel acutely exposed when the supernatural comes knocking. Sure, there's Tombstone but that's a long way away and it's not that big either. I really appreciated the way the tough guys of the west became rather vulnerable when the teeth of the story are eventually exposed.
I've read a few of Jeff Mariotte's novels and this is easily the biggest and best of them. Given that I've seen him at so many local events, I have a bunch more sitting on my shelf ready to go and this makes me want to leap into them soon. Sure, I'd have appreciated a more complex plot to match its complex characters, but I'll happily take the latter over neither.
Beyond Tuck Bringloe, who has a peach of a story arc, I honestly had little idea which of the cast of characters would become prominent and which would be ruthlessly killed off. I've been told by a couple of authors that every single character are the lead of their own story and they should be written that way. Mariotte does a fantastic job of doing that here, because even his minor characters are drawn well enough to invite us into their lives. It felt notable when they died and it felt important when those with a higher purpose met each other.
There are other things that I want to highlight because they especially impressed me, but they tended to come late in the book and any attempt to describe them would fall into spoiler territory. Let's just say that many of them are locations, which are constructed with a cinematic eye rather than a painter's. They breathe and move and resonate. There's a ranch house, for instance, that I would dearly love to see filmed, even before things start to happen there and those would just add to the glory of it.
I'm loving these 'Deadlands' books and I'm really interested now to see Seanan McGuire's contribution. She's known for supernatural mysteries and some (though far from all) of hers have been agreeably complex. If she can find freakiness like Maberry's and characterisations like Mariotte's but deepen their stories, her volume could be easily the best of the three. Roll on 2017 so we can find out! ~~ Hal C F Astell