Welcome to the first in a series of book reviews, a new feature on the Western Fictioneers blog. Every other Monday, I'll be chiming in with my thoughts about western novels, novellas, and short stories by authors across the spectrum, from well-known to yet-to-be-discovered. Some are members of Western Fictioneers, and some aren't.
By Ford Fargo
Western Fictioneers, August 2012
$10.99 paperback, ISBN 1475243197
$2.99 Kindle, ASIN B00916VX5A
When an outlaw gang swoops into the unassuming town of Wolf Creek, Kansas, in 1871, residents are horrified by the death and destruction the former Confederate border ruffians leave in their wake. A posse composed of disparate, often antagonistic, volunteers sets out to avenge the slaughter of innocents. Before they can settle the score with the outlaws, however, posse members must settle distrust, personal rivalries, and lingering Civil War-related animosity among themselves. Oh—and fight off hostile Indians.
Not everybody survives. In true western-fiction tradition, some likable characters die in bloody, senseless ways. For those left scarred but alive, the journey offers unanticipated rewards.
Bloody Trail gets off to something of a slow start by today’s standards, due in large part to in-depth descriptions of the town and several important characters within the first chapter. Much of the first chapter is backstory: interesting but seemingly overkill until the reader trudges on. Though readers may be tempted to skip ahead, I’d advise resisting temptation. Chapter 1’s significance can be evaluated only in hindsight. The novel’s opening is much like the town of Wolf Creek itself: unremarkable on the surface, but much deeper than it appears at first glance.
There is much to recommend about the first book in the Wolf Creek series. The breadth and depth of characters is commendable. Not a one of the posse members—a county sheriff, a Scottish doctor, a hostler, a young cowboy, a blacksmith, a store clerk, a farmer, and an enigmatic half-black, half-Seminole scout—is a western actor from Central Casting. Readers will wonder how, and whether, these men can put aside their sometimes-vitriolic interpersonal squabbles long enough to pursue a common goal. For a while, it seems they’re much more likely to kill each other than the bad guys. Even as the posse’s determination to complete its mission increases and the men start to work together, hostility seethes below the surface.
Wolf Creek is a remarkable undertaking: a true collaborative novel, not an anthology. I don’t know how Ford Fargo’s component personalities pulled off the feat, but (in order of chapter contribution) Clay More, James J. Griffin, Troy D. Smith, James Reasoner, L.J. Martin, and Cheryl Pierson created a world and a population that work, and work well. Though the overall “voice” of the novel stumbles in spots (particularly between the first two chapters and the rest of the book), for the most part there’s no clear demarcation between where one author bows out and another picks up the story. The effect is nearly seamless—the literary equivalent of a relay race in which runners pass the baton without breaking stride.
Despite a touch of repetition (near the end, one of the characters relates his backstory twice) Bloody Trail whet my appetite for more. Fortunately, three sequels already exist: Kiowa Vengeance, Murder in Dogleg City, and The Taylor County War. I look forward to following established characters and meeting new ones in future volumes. Ford Fargo's personality splits into even more components in the sequels, as additional authors join the fray.
By James Reasoner
The Book Place, October 2012
$0.99 Kindle, ASIN B009NIMVT8
Tom Brodie lost an arm and his wife during the Civil War. The arm he left on a battlefield. Who the heck knows where his wife went, but she ran off with another man before Brodie returned home. Brodie retreats from the world—and himself—into a lackluster existence as a barkeep, disaffectedly watching life continue around him, determined not to care. When a dying man staggers into the saloon with a cryptic plea for help from Brodie’s faithless wife, the former military commander can’t explain, even to himself, why he drops everything and sets out to investigate.
Described as a “hard-boiled western novella,” this short, fast-paced read, told by a master storyteller, will haunt readers long after they reach the end. Reasoner pulls no authorly tricks; he simply disappears and lets the characters do the heavy lifting. There's no “pretty” language here—in fact, the style is reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s best bare-bones storytelling—and perhaps that’s part of the story’s charm. Harsh, often brutal, always unflinching, the poetry of Savage Blood is in the way uncomplicated words serve the characters and their tale.
That does not mean the characters lack complexity. Each player is extraordinarily drawn: a complete being with his or her own frailties, strengths, and idiosyncrasies. The interaction between them is fascinating and wholly entertaining. Life hasn’t been fair to Brodie, yet he never slips into self-pity. Though he’s lost everything that ever mattered to him, somewhere along the twisting path to the story’s conclusion, he finds the two things he needs most: a new sense of self and redemption.
A highly recommended read.
Kathleen Rice Adams is a Texan, a voracious reader, a professional journalist, and a novelist in training. She purchased both books reviewed in this post. Her opinions are her own and are neither endorsed nor necessarily supported by Western Fictioneers or individual members of the organization.