Monday, January 14, 2013

Of Bloody Trails and One-armed Men

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.

Saddle up!

Wolf Creek: Book 1
Bloody Trail
By Ford Fargo
Western Fictioneers, August 2012
$10.99 paperback, ISBN 1475243197
$2.99 Kindle, ASIN B00916VX5A
210 pages

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.

Savage Blood
By James Reasoner
The Book Place, October 2012
$0.99 Kindle, ASIN B009NIMVT8
60 pages

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.


  1. Howdy, Kathleen, and welcome to the Western Fictioneer blog! We're so glad to have you with us to review western books, and I know I am looking forward to your reviews when you show up on every other Monday to give us your opinions. Thank you for your kind words about Wolf Creek: Book 1 Bloody Trail! Glad you enjoyed it so much.

  2. Kathleen, I really enjoyed these reviews. I'm already looking forward to the next ones. The Western Fictioneers are fortunate that you are doing this. Thank you,
    Jerry Guin

  3. Great reviews. Made me want to read both books and I plan to. Thanks. I'm looking forward to reading more of your reviews.

  4. I have read the first Ford Fargo Wolf Creek book, and concur with your review! I'll have to pick up the second by Jim Reasoner - sounds great! :-)

  5. Egad! I post this, run away to try to beat the rat-race rats at their own game, and come back to find such a warm welcome. Thank you all for your kind words.

    Cheryl, thanks especially to you and Livia for inviting me to contribute. It's a pleasure to be able to read some mighty fine western fiction and share my thoughts.

    Jerry and Barbara, I'm glad y'all enjoyed the reviews. At some point someone may have to rustle up a lasso and hogtie me to shut me up. ;-)

    Meg! I'm glad to hear we concur about the first Wolf Creek book. I'm in good company there. And DO read SAVAGE BLOOD. I think you'll enjoy it. :-)

  6. Two very nice reviews-you seem to make every book one I would like to read. Then again, that is the purpose of a review. Great job, I really like this site, glad I found it.

  7. Welcome to the WF blog, Kathleen!

    When I read Wolf Creek: Bloody Trail, the opening kept me interested, but in a studious sort of way, then POW, the action began, and I realized that the slow build-up set the stage for the attack's outstanding dramatic effect. The characters were all very well drawn, and I read way past my bedtime because they had me by the throat and wouldn't let me go. I'm looking forward to reading the second and third books, which are in my TBR folder.

    Speaking of the TBR folder, Savage Blood by James Reasoner will be sitting there soon. Sounds like a great story. I've thoroughly enjoyed the other books by him that I've read.

  8. Great reviews Kathleen. Thank you for posting them. I'm looking forward to your future blog.

  9. Kathleen, thank you for 'bellying up to the bar' as they say and sharing your insights and likes/dislikes. I always find reviews a great way to get a sense if what I want to read, and learn what works and doesn't work for readers. Congratulations on a great start.

  10. Old guy, I'm glad you found this site, too! Hang around. All the bloggers here have interesting stuff to say. :-)

    Trail Boss (Jacquie), that's about the same effect the opening chapters in Bloody Trail had on me. There was a ton of historical detail and set-up in early pages, delivered in an almost scholarly fashion (intentionally so, it seems), and I enjoyed the doctor's take on his world. So I'm just ambling along, picking up terms and historical bits and scenery with which I was unfamiliar, when all of a sudden some blackhearted scoundrel shot me clean outta the saddle! Of course, I was lucky to have a saddle left immediately thereafter, with all the murder and mayhem busting out like it did. Talk about a dry-gulching! :-D

    Livia and RW, thanks for kind words. Now let's just hope I don't incite a lynch mob somewhere down the road.... ;-)

  11. Wonderful reviews. I once read only Westerns--for about two years--then switched to Science Fiction, etc...I read in clumps. But I remember how I loved all those westerns I read. Now, I write romance--and yes, they are westerns.
    James Reasoner's short book sound very good, and the review was clear and concise.

  12. Kathleen- thank you very much for lending us your prodigious talents, presented with such insight, perception, honesty and integrity. We are very fortunate to have your voice here.

  13. Whoa. Prodigious talents? Why Professor, you're gonna turn my head. Actually, I'm the one who's fortunate. Being turned loose with a bunch of westerns and told to be honest about what I say.... What were y'all thinking? ;-)

    Celia, weren't you a teacher in a past life? I'm flattered you think the review was clear and concise. Concise usually isn't my specialty. ;-) Thanks for dropping by!

  14. Hi, Kathleen. Thanks for the reviews. Can't help but add my two yens worth on Bloody Trail. For a while, I had trouble following all the threads, then I bumped. These novels are about a town. Wolf Creek is the protagonist, and all the players are like body parts and molecules and whatever else it takes to make up a body. Once you get your head around that, the stories come together incredibly well. IMHO.

    Thanks for your reviews and we're so happy to have you aboard our little prairie schooner.


  15. Tex, These were two of the most helpful reviews I think I've ever read. Thank you, for writing a review that actually helps me decide if I want to read a book or not. And I definitely want to read SAVAGE BLOOD!

    Have fun at you new home on the Wild Web!


  16. Great review. I've another book on my TBR list.