Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Six-Gun Tarot

This one caught my eye based largely on the title, and it met my expectations of being absolutely bizarre. Happy Fourth, everyone, and maybe you'll enjoy taking a look at this alternate take on the American frontier spirit.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Somewhat hefty (364 pages in hardback)
Publication: January 22, 2013 from Tor Books
Premise: The town of Golgotha sits in the middle of the desert like any other mining encampment with a dash of civility, but the mountain under Argent Mine hides secrets that modern humanity can't begin to comprehend. A ragged band of people who can't leave the town will be forced to step forward if they are to save their homes and their world.
Warnings: gore, platonic necrophilia, tentacle rape (hello there, tags that have never been necessary on this blog before)
Recommendation: If you don't mind reading closely, The Six-Gun Tarot can be quite fun. It's dark and strange and not infrequently disturbing, but that's part of what makes it so dramatically different from everything else.

I've tried to avoid spoilers, but there are a few light ones scattered throughout, mostly for things that occur in each character's first segment.  

What holds this one together:

Belcher sets the stage for this novel with small details at first, opening on a boy walking through the desert with his horse and letting the narrative spread widely, from flashbacks on the East Coast to the creation of the universe, both of which seem equally distant from the frontier. The people of Golgotha simply seem to accept the oddities of life in the little town-- they'll mention in passing that someone was cut open, filled with sawdust, and reanimated, but no one lingers on the idea that what has happened is impossible, and that detail helps the toown hang together. People came for the Argent Mine silver rush and stayed after in the hopes that another vein would be discovered, never quite finding matters disturbing enough to actually leave. Just as the readers and townspeople don't know the full story of what's been happening in the past, the full backstories and powers of the main characters. The veil is pulled aside for Muade Stapleton, a trained warrior who hides a derringer in her bonnet and carries powers of a line dating back to Lilith, but most others strike a balance between revealing their powers and leaving precise origins and methods a mystery. The blend of detail levels is part of what allows all of these sub-genres and influences to blend so well.

Everyone in Golgotha has a story and all the main characters have special powers that twine well back into their backstories or even their bloodlines-- in places it can start to make the prose feel exposition-heavy, but every detail seems to matter in the end. It's all the better when characters who seem like stock cutouts are shown to be internally rich. This genre can often fall into the trap of making a few characters exceptional against a backdrop of dullness, but this motley band succeeds only because everyone willing to have this fight is extraordinary. They're drawing some sources as far-flung as Mormon holy relics, the blood of Lilith, the speed of Coyote, mysterious immortality, the eye of a god, and somehow it pulls all of them into exactly the fighting force that the world needs. They're given a certain amount of help from gods and spirits and angels, but at some point those entities have to step back and leave humans to do the fighting. The exact reasoning for this never quite makes sense beyond "because plot reasons," but it allows humans to draw on higher and stranger powers while still allowing them to be underdogs.

These people seem more necessary by the page as we're introduced to their nemesis, a bound evil that existed before the world and was chained in the earth to keep it from breaking free and destroying everything. Even if you haven't read Lovecraft, this creature is soon recognizable as a tentacled menace with a pet cult. Belcher isn't afraid to go for the nasty details, and that makes this villain more viscerally foul than many fantasy antagonists. Black ichor oozes from the orifices of those who have been attacked and become the Stained, and one becomes possessed by having a dark tentacle-bit forced down the throat until the soul is subsumed by evil. The character who becomes the Black Madonna, mother of all of these pieces of foulness, becomes so via a short but slightly graphic bit of tentacle rape. There's no way to doubt by the end that this possession is a violation of both body and spirit-- it can seem excessive in places, but it's also necessary to add some real fear to the prospect of the world simply being destroyed and giving everyone a mercifully short death. All the imagery in this vein is grotesquely compelling, evoking detailed sensations without wallowing in cheap gore or horror movie drama.

The details really start to slot home on all sort of levels as the book progresses, and that's especially obvious with the chapter titles. I was a little skeptical about the title at first, since most tarot in fiction is shaky verging on hilariously bad (with the exception of The Gypsy, which has one great tarot reading in it), but it ends up feeling absolutely justified. The chapters are each titled after a card in the deck that corresponds in some way with the events of the chapter, like Page of Wands for Jim's introduction or The Hanged Man for the chapter introducing Sheriff Highfather, who still bears rope marks around his neck from the three times people tried to hang him and failed when the rope broke. The book doesn't stick so closely to each card that events are entirely predictable, but a basic knowledge of tarot adds anticipation to each chapter while you try to work out what's going to happen before the corresponding event shows up.

The red pen:

Although the main cast of characters most lives up to the promise of the setting and the battle for the fate of the world, the less-central characters often come off as shaky or awkward. The worst offenders are probably the tangle of people who are close to Auggie, the general store owner. He's still in mourning for his wife Gerta, but her best friend Gillian has been getting closer to him and he wants to be with someone again. This is complicated by the fact that his best friend Clay, who runs a stable and has an obsession with dead things, was also in love with Gerta and thinks that Auggie is a traitor for looking at anyone else. And then the whole situation takes a sharp left turn in the macabre when it's revealed that Gerta is still alive, albeit only after a fashion and not entirely willingly. This knoted ac could be the centerpiece of any other novel, but it's unevenly paced and executed with low stakes in such a way that it's hard to justify the way it pulls time and focus away from the main flow of the action, especially later in the book. If this had been one weird vignette among many illustrating the town's diversity it could have been great, but it doesn't seem to know what to do with itself. 

There's a similar problem in the nexus of characters surrounding Harry Pratt, the Mormon mayor-- one bizarre love triangle/sqaure is enough for one book, and the narrative spends too much time trying to make all of them relevant. Harry tries to hold onto his role as the moral centerpiece of the town and live up to everyone's expectations, but he can't balance his public and private lives. His second wife, Holly, was in some way his childhood sweetheart, but he's keeping her trapped in marriage while he pursues a secret homosexual affair with Ringo, a piano player down at the brothel. All three of them are grasping for imperfect happiness and hurting each other along the way-- it has the potential to add emotional depth to the story arc, but ultimately falls flat by focusing too much on Harry's pain when he's managing to have some of everything he wants. To some extent he's portrayed as flawed, but the way he trends more toward melancholy and put-upon while Holly is spiteful doesn't do great things for the nuance that the book has been trying to pain. The fourth character in this tangle drops completely off the radar, which is a pity given how interesting she is-- Sarah, Harry's first wife (who was chosen for him by the church and is twice his age), is one of his closest friends and sources of support, even encouraging him to find some happiness with Ringo if he can. By the end of the book, we're not even sure if she's alive or dead, and it comes off establishing her as the "good wife" counterpoint to Holly, (who is young, lusty, and demanding) rather than creating an actual character.

The character jumble just gets more confusing when the narrative inexplicably changes from one character's point of view without even a paragraph break, let alone a new section or chapter. It doesn't happen constantly, but in some early scenes it means skipping back and forth or rereading the same page three times to double-check that it's a point of view shift instead of one character being in two places at once somehow. This sort of head-hopping works in the middle of battle scnes when all the characters have been introduced and it feels like the camera panning from struggle to struggle (as in the well-staged climax to The Avengers). When these characters are being introduced in that very scene and a positioning-heavy ambush is being staged, getting bogged down in the logistics of who's steering the narrative saps the tension. There are enough plot lines going on that distractions need to be kept under control, and every little obstacle makes it harder to juggle the big plotlines and retain small details from one character arc to the next.

As a whole, this works when it's focused on the highest possible stakes. It would do better to narrow down some of the characterization, spending more time on things like Highfather's mysterious backstory and less on the bizarre love lives of characters who do little more than establish that Golgotha is a weird town. The worldbuilding is intriguing enough that I'll be watching for whatever Belcher puts out next, and I'd love to see more weird Westerns in this "chuck it in and see what's cool" vein. 

Prospects: Adding a sequel to The Six-Gun Tarot would end up taking the power of the first book, since there's really nowhere go go but down after you've already saved the world from an evil trapped at the dawn of time. So far Belcher hasn't announced any other projects but has participated in a few short story collections, but I'll update this post if more are on the horizon.

Enjoyed this? Try:  
~Boneshaker occurs in a tech-heavy world with no proper magic, but the Western-with-a-twist setting is somewhat similar and the mechanics of this steampunk tech are beautifully detailed. 


  1. Thanks for the review. My boyfriend doesn't read much, but he plays D&D with Rod Belcher, so he devoured this pretty quickly and enjoyed it. I got a few chapters in but when dude after dude was introduced, I lost interest. These days I prefer women-driven stories. Though I wish I was more familiar with tarot. The tie-in with the chapter titles sounds neat.

    1. You're welcome! The dudes are fun, no question, but there are fewer female characters and even the interesting ones don't get quite enough time on the page in the middle third of the book. Next month I think I'm doing a female-lead Western for the opening week.

      Some understanding of tarot is helpful, yeah-- most writers are lazy with it, but Belcher clearly did some research. That detail makes me want to read more of his books in the future, but this one would have been *so* much better with a more compact central cast. Juggling something like eight POVs, but a little too unfocused.