J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: The Shotgun Arcana

It’s a soggy Sunday morning. Gentle rain pattering outside my window, and my blanket warmed my feet. Electric blankets are a slice of heaven, I’m convinced. So I seized the opportunity to finish another book.

That book is the sequel to last year’s excellent Six Gun Tarot, the similarly named Shotgun Arcana. What the heck is a shotgun arcana, you may ask? I’ve read the book, and I’m still uncertain. But it certainly is a cool title, and that’s more important than making sense a lot of times.

On the flip side, this cover makes sense when you’ve read the book.

The blurb reads like this:

R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was enthusiastically greeted by critics and readers, who praised its wildly inventive mixture of dark fantasy, steampunk, and the Wild West. Now Belcher returns to Golgotha, Nevada, a bustling frontier town that hides more than its fair share of unnatural secrets.

1870. A haven for the blessed and the damned, including a fallen angel, a mad scientist, a pirate queen, and a deputy who is kin to coyotes, Golgotha has come through many nightmarish trials, but now an army of thirty-two outlaws, lunatics, serial killers, and cannibals are converging on the town, drawn by a grisly relic that dates back to the Donner Party…and the dawn of humanity.

Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies already have their hands full dealing with train robbers, a mysterious series of brutal murders, and the usual outbreaks of weirdness.  But with thirty-two of the most vicious killers on Earth riding into Golgotha in just a few day’s time, the town and its people will be tested as never before—and some of them will never be the same.

The Shotgun Arcana is even more spectacularly ambitious and imaginative than The Six-Gun Tarot, and confirms R. S. Belcher’s status as a rising star.

Even more spectacularly ambitious and imaginative than its predecessor, huh? Sign me up!

 

What I liked:

The characters. Much like the original, this book’s strength is  its characters. By a country mile. Which is fine by me, since I’m solidly in the camp of those who feel that a story is made or broken by the characters, with the actual plot being a distant second in importance. This is fortunate, considering that the plot of this book can be boiled down to “The Magnificent Seven defend a macguffin from an army made of horror freak shows.” Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad plot… it’s actually an awesome plot, in my opinion. But it is certainly simple compared to the complex cast of characters.

The memorable cast from the original book return. Like the blurb says, you’ve got a fallen angel, a mad scientist (who isn’t really that mad), a pirate queen, and a shapeshifting deputy. But you’ve also got a sheriff who may or may not be undead, a gay mayor (hey, that’s an especially big deal in an 1800s setting) who is following a path of a legendary hero, a woman private eye, and a bunch of pirate ninjas. Yes, pirate ninjas. I’m convinced RS Belcher is trying to break the internet with an old meme. But it works.

Honestly, he does a fantastic job juggling a diverse cast of characters, and gives most of them a fair amount of POV time to shine. George RR Martin’s books made it popular to instill a ton of POVs into a book series with an ensemble cast. It works more than it doesn’t, simply because you’re likely guaranteed to like at least a few of the characters you’ve read enough to keep going. To keep going with my comparison, Bran’s chapters bored me in A Storm of Swords, but I kept going because I wanted to find out what happened next to Tyrion.

Which typically involves him saying something witty about his love life, or drinking wine.

The interesting part about this book, though, at least from my personal standpoint, is that I actually liked all of the POVs. Sure, some of the tendencies annoyed me about one or two of them, but none of them were to the point where when I flipped a page and came across a new POV, I’d automatically put the book down for a break. Some characters are bookmarks more than actual characters sometimes.

But this is a rare thing. And the mark of a quality book.

The villains. 

I’m sort of convinced that since his debut novel was a success, Belcher decided that he could let his hair down on some wilder concepts for this book. Almost all of the good ones come in the form of the Praetorians, or the thirty two most brutal killers on earth that the blurb mentions. You get interesting little slices describing each of them as segways between chapters, and each are good enough that if he wanted to write a horror novel about any of them, it would probably be worth a read.* I really like this design decision. This way, by the time they actually pop up in the story, you have some idea of who they are, and what depravities that they’re capable of.

*Yes, I said horror. This book is much more graphic than I recall The Six Gun Tarot being. I’m okay with that. I love horror movies. But anyone interested in reading this should be aware that if it were a movie, it would need a hard R. Maybe even more than that, in some cases.

The funny thing is that these killers are actually more interesting than the main antagonist. But I understand that after the nature of the threat from the original book, a bunch of deranged serial killers would be a major step down in stakes. That’s kind of crazy to think about.

The efficiency.

This book tells a massive story, with a huge cast of characters, in just under 400 pages. In an age where it seems like the style is to tell an overly bloated story that moves at sloth speeds after 1000+ pages, and typically with a smaller number of POVs (heck, sometimes it’s just one) I will always give this fact a major thumbs up.

 

What I didn’t like:

The stakes. What do I mean by that? It’s simple. Even though the Praetorians are built up as a major, possibly world ending threat, our heroes defeat them. Well, JA, isn’t that what a story should do, you might ask? After all, it’d be awfully depressing, not to mention series ending, if the bad guys won.

You’d be right. My issue is that the good guys win a little bit too easily at times. There’s no really particularly heavy threat of loss. This isn’t comic books, where someone HAS to die to make the story seem relevant. But the flippant way that some characters reference other weird events that happen sometimes can almost make one feel like this incident we’re reading isn’t any more threatening than those other times referenced. Bad guys come to town, get owned, nobody important really loses much, life goes on. I could go into detail, but I prefer not to spoil things in case anyone reading this goes to read the book afterward (which they should).

There are a few avenues that Belcher has set up that might very well turn this criticism on its head. I welcome that. But in my opinion, he just needs to take advantage of the fact that in an ensemble cast, he has the freedom to do whatever he wants, and the story can keep going.

The training. This word comes up quite a lot in the book, and it kind of got old after a while. We know Maude is a badass pirate ninja because of her training. I’d like to see it described another way, once in a while. I still like the character, and look forward to reading that spin off with her. But just a little variety would be nice.

The chapters. This is nothing new, and just a minor pet peeve of mine. I’d like some numbers to go with the chapter titles, please. Won’t stop me from reading them as they come out, but it’d make me happy.

 

The bottom line:

This book is excellent. I solidly agree that it is in fact superior to the original, and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s a treat to read these characters in this wacky world Belcher has created, and I look forward to reading more as they come out. Sure, it has some issues, but I had to think hard to come up with even those criticisms. It shouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading these books, as I can readily call myself a fan of Belcher’s writing.

*****.

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