Western has never been a favorite genre with me: I used to say that most (if not all) movies started in the same way, with a man arriving into town on a horse, to proceed along similar lines toward a somewhat predictable ending. So I was firm in my belief that I would rather not spend my time reading or watching a western-themed story.
That is, until I stumbled on Firefly.
That delightful and unfortunate show changed my perspective, teaching me that a western blended with… something else, if well done, would be a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy a story. Therefore, when I heard about Six-Gun Tarot, I was curious enough to see if the magic of mixing western with another genre would work again – and indeed it did, even though the opening lines seemed to confirm my conviction about the start of such stories: young Jim Negrey, on the run from the law and his own past deeds, lands in Golgotha with his horse Promise, after barely surviving the crossing of the harsh 40-mile desert. The town seems perfect for someone holding secrets, probably because it harbors its own mysteries, some of which disguise dangers way beyond the wildest imagination.
Everyone in Golgotha has something to hide: Sheriff Highfather had several brushes with death, and always unexplainably survived; his Indian deputy Mutt is a skin-changer, wise in the ways of the coyotes; Mayor Pratt, leader of the local Mormon community, is forced to live a double life because of his homosexuality; Maude, wife of the local banker, is a trained warrior and assassin masquerading as the perfect spouse. These are just some of the figures in the vast choral tapestry of the town, a town that’s accustomed to the unusual and the bizarre, as some off-hand remarks indicate, laying down a curious but unexplained background:
Why is Golgotha the town where the owls speak and the stones moan? Why is this the town that attracts monsters and saints, both mortal and preternatural? Why is our schoolhouse haunted? Why did Old Lady Bellamy wear the skins of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom’s dolls come to life and kill people? Why do you still pour a ring of salt around that unmarked grave and how did this little ditch of a town become the final resting place of some of Heaven’s treasures?
This must be the main reason why some strange happenings are at first underestimated by Golgotha’s citizens, thus allowing an ancient evil to raise its head and threaten not only the town’s survival, but the whole world’s. As the story progresses, the pace becomes breathless and the reading compulsive, taking the reader to the end battle that – most satisfyingly – looks only like a reprieve and a possible lead to the next book. What I liked most about Six-Gun Tarot, besides the characters, are exactly these hints of past happenings, of a more complex history of which we are allowed only glimpses: it’s a well conceived tie to the existence of the ancient evil deep in the bowels of the silver mine, a tie that needs no drawn-out explanations to make itself understood and accepted, and for this very reason it worked perfectly for me.
There were places in the story where I was somewhat baffled, especially when it went back to the birth of the world and the scenes focused on angels and demons: for a little while I was worried that it would all turn into something of an allegory (being an admirer of Professor Tolkien’s work, I share his dislike of this kind of symbolic representation), but in the end even those passages came into focus and blended into the narrative in a most satisfying way.
Characters are another strong point in this novel: despite the large and variegated cast present on the scene, it’s easy to picture each individual and to understand what makes them who they are. Their back-stories are organically integrated in the narrative and they never feel like info-dump, which is always a plus, but what makes these characters attractive to me is the fact they are flawed.
Like young Jim, who took the worst kind of action for the best of motives, but did it with such blind ferocity that he made a terrible mistake, as we will learn well into the story: he’s looking for redemption and he’s afraid he’s way past any chance for it, as he says in a very impassioned outburst. “I’ve been trying since I got here. Trying to live up to the fine men I’ve made the acquaintance of, live up to what they expect of me. […] Everyone I’ve met has been so damned noble, so good, I just couldn’t see that light die in their eyes when they knew what I really am.” Jim’s coming-of-age journey is indeed a fascinating one and I hope to see more of it in the next novel.
Mutt, Sheriff Highfather’s Indian deputy, is an equally compelling character, not just because of his dual nature but because he is a total outsider in either world, the one he came from and the one where he choose to live. Reviled by most of Golgotha’s citizens because of his heritage, and an outcast among his own people, Mutt’s very aloneness is the source of his strength and even a matter of pride, a badge of honor, because Mutt wears this uniqueness as a shield and feels no need to excuse who and what he is.
As for Maude, she’s a very intriguing character coming from a long line of women (the Daughters of Lilith), dedicated to building one’s inner strength and exceptional abilities: the flashbacks concerning her training with Grandmother Anne make for a quite engaging reading, and I enjoyed very much the old woman’s dry humor, especially concerning men. “Guns are like men—only useful for a little while. They can go off at a moment’s notice when you don’t want them to and they make a lot of damn fool noise doing it. They tend to fail on you when you need them most. Don’t rely on them.” Despite being so empowered, Maude suffers from self-doubt and is painfully aware of having let her training slip through the years of her marriage to a selfish and unlovable man, but is still able to find the most important core of her strength when the need arises: an all-out heroine would have sounded contrived, while a woman who can connect to her hard-won abilities when the going gets tough is far more convincing and true.
Given these premises, I truly look forward to reading more about Golgotha, its citizens and the strange world they live in…
My Rating: 8/10