I haven't enjoyed many books as much as the first two novels in R. S. Belcher's 'Golgotha' series. They're weird westerns, quintessential examples of that genre, and I could happily read more about Jim, Mutt, Jon, Maude and all the rest of the sprawling ensemble cast of characters who inhabit the supernatural magnet that is the Nevada desert town of Golgotha, well, until the shoggoths come home. I want more books. Heck, I want a TV show!
Well, as much as I want those things, Belcher wisely shook up his formula here for a third book, to keep things fresh. It's very much a continuation from 'The Six-Gun Tarot' and 'The Shotgun Arcana', but it takes a different approach. For a start, it's not weird west, because it's not set in Golgotha. We're given alternating chapters for a change, one of which begins in Jamaica in 1721, and the other in northern Utah in 1870, as Maude, the Widow Stapleton, the Queen of Swords of the title, travels away from Golgotha by train.
Her half of the book includes supernatural action, as we've come to expect, as she finds herself battling other members of the Daughters of Lilith, the order to which she and Constance belong, as well as an opposite order, the Sons of Typhon, who she doesn't know are their nemeses. However, part of it unfolds as a legal battle, as the point for her to travel back east is to Charleston to fight her father for custody of her daughter, Constance. It's a new approach for this series, but it's not as out of place as it sounds.
There are enough characters of note in the 'Golgotha' series for us to pick our own favourites, but anyone who wanted to see Maude kick ass the way only she can will be very happy with how this one unfolds, even if Mutt only appears in the form of a heartfelt letter and the other Golgotha locals don't show up at all.
In fact, fans of Maude will get a bonus because the other half of the book is dedicated to a further member of the Daughters of Lilith: the pirate queen, Anne Bonny, Maude's 'grandmother', who taught her all she knows. You won't be too surprised to find that she's exactly the kick-ass anti-heroine we might have expected and she has plenty of room here to grow as a character in her own right. Arguably, she grows a lot more than Maude in this book, because we get her whole story arc rather than just a portion.
Her half of the book is old school adventure, a mixture of Victorian lost world story, set in a world where there are still uncharted sections on the maps, and pulp horror, Lovecraftian for sure, but more in the vein of Robert E. Howard's takes on the mythos than Lovecraft's own. Put simply, she escapes from Port Royal and decides to hightail it off to darkest Africa to seek out the one final treasure that will enable her to retire comfortably. What she finds, both on the way to Carcosa, and once she gets there, is not remotely what she expects, because there are those who know she's coming and they have their own plans for her.
As different as this is from the two books which preceded it, I enjoyed it immensely. These leads are different and they're leading different stories, but they're connected by blood and by inevitability, so we know that they will connect again eventually. However, they have much in common. Both are mothers, but one is gaining the child she doesn't want while the other is losing the one she wants to keep. Both are facing monsters, in a very literal sense, the Sons of Typhon being literally designed to counter the Daughters of Lilith in battle. But both are also facing very different monsters, those of society and tradition and even racism. There's a lot here.
There's also a lot in the sense of genre, which I admire. This series began as weird west, with a strong element of supernatural horror, but this book takes it into a whole slew of different directions. I've mentioned the legal aspect, as well as Victorian adventure and still more supernatural horror, but that's not all that's explored here. There's a strong element of espionage and the whole thing is built on a couple of secret societies. It's not too outrageous to suggest that the fight scenes that pit Maude and the Daughters of Lilith against the monstrously deformed Sons of Typhon being reminiscent of tokusatsu television, albeit without giant robots. There's even a point at which we venture into high fantasy, traversing the Secret Sea on a ship made of living trees, navigating into duskgates and out of dawngates to real world to shortcut distance.
The weird west genre is one of the most versatile of them all, because an author can throw anything at the Wild West, but I have to say that R. S. Belcher goes far beyond it here and I was happy to travel along for the ride. I have to suggest that I haven't read a series that features this much admirable diversity in subgenres since Brian Lumley's 'Titus Crow' books, in which he started out with Lovecraftian horror but soon merged it with science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs planetary adventure and, eventually, connected the series to a couple of others, in which he worked in more traditional fantasy as well as sword and sorcery. People hated him for it, but people loved him for it too. He did his thing and I have respect for that.
I have respect for this book too because it takes real balls to strike your own trail when there are a host of well-worn paths already in evidence that everyone expects you to take, but, if you think about it, it's a fundamentally Wild West thing to do, and that's why I remain eager to read more in the 'Golgotha' series, whatever directions that Belcher wants to take and whichever genres he wants to trawl in. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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