For a reason or another, I seem to have drifted towards more steampunk reads than usual of late and The Buntline Special is latest to have captured my attention. Mike Resnick is one of those writers who’s been around for so long and published so many novels that he is surrounded by a mythical aura of sorts. Unfortunately, up to now I had never read any of his work, and I’m now thinking that may have been a mistake. His first attempt at steampunk is absolutely riveting, blending in plenty of the steampunk goodness the sub-genre is loved for, famous historical figures and some good old western style action. In essence: another fine read.
The United States of America ends at the Mississippi River. Beyond lies the Indian nations, where the magic of the powerful Medicine Men has halted the advance of the Americans east of the river.
An American government desperate to expand its territory sends Thomas Alva Edison out West to the town of Tombstone, Arizona, on a mission to discover a scientific means of counteracting magic. Hired to protect this great genius, Wyatt Earp and his brothers.
But there are plenty who would like to see the Earps and Edison dead. Riding to their aid are old friends Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson. Against them stand the Apache wizard Geronimo and the Clanton gang. Battle lines are drawn, and the Clanton gang, which has its own reasons for wanting Edison dead, sends for Johnny Ringo, the one man who might be Doc Holliday’s equal in a gunfight. But what shows up instead is The Thing That Was Once Johnny Ringo, returned from the dead and come to Tombstone looking for a fight.
What we have at the beginning of this novel is a setting with plenty of potential. First off, Resnick has put a twist on the general terms of history, the Untied States not having yet crossed into the West, and a town out past the frontier with a lot happening in it. Then he brings together a dynamic cast of characters - notable figures of the time period - to this wild town. From there, with the help of a little clever plotting, a great story cannot help but unroll.
With a setting like the Wild West, The Buntline Special could never be completely original, or at least not in the way a second world fantasy can. With this setting comes a certain number of almost inescapable tropes a story has to go through. But where most of time tropes and clichés are (sometimes wrongly so) associated with bad writing, in a western it’s almost the opposite - a good writer will use the tropes to his advantage. And so it is with Resnick. He takes typical elements of westerns - Indians, duels, etc. - and uses them in his story in such a way that is feels like they are things we’ve never seen before. For example: in this book the Indians are actually winning and are successfully holding off the American advance with magic. That’s something new right?
Then, of course, there’s also the undead gunslinger that has a past-the-grave obsession with determining whether he is the best shooter in the West or not, and you’ve got yourself a bunch of tropes turned completely upside down. Not to mention those are all such fun things. And at the end of the day that’s the best thing that can be said about The Buntline Special; it’s fun. It does not attempt to complicate things and keeps the story simple and straightforward while featuring a ton of wacky features, all the way from robotic whores to bat-transforming cowboys, that keep the reader’s attention where maybe the relatively simple plot wouldn’t.
Did I also mention a lot of what’s in this book is just plain cool? For Christ sake, there’s Thomas Edison, who most of us know as the inventor of the light bulb, out in Tombstone inventing all sorts of steampunk gadgetry for cowboys to play around with. That there, I think, is every geek’s dream Wild West. Also, you’ve got to give Resnick credit for his exposition. A lot of this stuff would not seem nearly as brilliant were it not presented to the reader in the way Resnick has. He weaves this elements in, almost subtly, so that as they appear they almost don’t look out of the ordinary until you stop to think about it and think ‘wow, that’s awesome’. The seamless storytelling, with all these elements, historical figures and plot mixed in, helps The Buntline Special out too.
So another great steampunk novel to add to your shelves? I think so. Resnick certainly does not drop the ball in his first attempt at writing in this sub-genre. Never mind that the story doesn’t feel like it gets the conclusion it deserves (or maybe that was just me wanting more?) The Buntline Special will pull you aboard for a rattling ride. This still doesn’t reach the heights of excellence that this year’s other, earlier steampunk release, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, but it will certainly give you plenty for your money. Well worth it.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
Mike Resnick's Website: http://www.fortunecity.com/tattooine/farmer/2/
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