The Six-Gun Tarot: The heck with playing it safe

Six-Gun Tarot by Rod BelcherThe Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

I don’t know if I’ve seen a book as packed with ideas, tropes, storylines, and genres as The Six-Gun Tarot, by R.S. (Rod) Belcher. To give a rough idea, here is a mere sampling of what’s in the mix: Native American coyote mythology, zombies, a seemingly unkillable sheriff, Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos, Western genre tropes, acupuncture, Lilith mythos, steampunk, a re-examination of Christian creation myth, romance, Mormonism, Civil War stories, horror, ghosts, pirates (OK, only briefly mentioned, but still), Chinese creation mythology, hidden tunnels, reanimation, hidden pasts, assassins, hidden sexuality, evil preachers, hidden affairs, angels — Fallen and fallen — and, well, you get the idea. And remember, this is a “sampling.”

Is it too much? You know, I’m just not sure. You’d think it would be. You’d think somebody — an editor, a good friend — might have said, “Ya know, Rod, I’ll give you the angels, female pirate assassins who live for centuries, and a shambling zombie horde, but do you need the talking coyote and huge tentacle beastie?” If I were to step back and look at it with a critical eye, I’m sure I’d say, “Focus, people! We need more focus!” But you know what? I want that talking coyote. And the zombies. And the local taxidermist/inventor/reanimator/unrequited lover. And the derringer-toting, martial-arts-knowing, trained-by-a-200-year-old-female-pirate character. And the sheriff who has yet to find his day to die. And. And. And.

So, the heck with playing it safe. You go girl! Er, boy. Rod. Sometimes there’s something to be said for just plain exuberance, for swinging for the fences rather than laying down the bunt. And so while in some ways The Six-Gun Tarot would have been a “better” book with some excising of ideas and storylines, I’m not sure it would have been an equally fun one.

The story opens up with a sharp bit of narrative tension: “The Nevada sun bit into Jim Negrey like a rattlesnake,” as 15-year-old Jim and his horse Promise are struggling through the 40-Mile Desert, trying to outrun a Wanted poster on his way to Virginia City, Nevada. Instead, Jim ends up in Golgotha, just the other side of the desert, home to a played-out silver mine and a host of folks with mysterious pasts, the lost and the strange, the outcasts and square pegs that the town seems to call to itself, among them:

  • Jon Highfather: the town sheriff who, according to rumor, can’t be killed
  • Mutt: sheriff’s deputy and half-breed Native American with a weird family
  • Clay: the above-mentioned taxidermist
  • Maude Stapleton: the above-mentioned derringer-toting woman
  • Harry: the town’s Mormon mayor with more wives than he wants

Golgotha, though, is not just a place where strange people end up; it’s also a place where strange things happen, as one character relates:

“What do you think is going on here… 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 school house haunted? Why did old lady Bellamy wear the skin of corpses on the new moon? How did old Odd Tom’s dolls come to life and kill people?”

What I love about this passage is that none of those things happen in the book. Any of them would have made for their own novel or at least their own story, yet in Golgotha, they’re just asides because this stuff happens all the time here. It’s like coming into the middle of season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and listening to the characters nonchalantly reminiscing about vampires and praying mantis teachers and demon dogs and oh yeah, that time Buffy died, not the first time, no, the second time…

Besides sharing a penchant for supernatural doings thanks to its own version of the Hellmouth, The Six-Gun Tarot also shares some of that Buffy humor, sometimes driven by situation, sometimes driven by character, sometimes driven by witty dialogue, and as with Buffy, sometimes driven by undermining expectations based on the familiar tropes.

There is a plot here amidst all the chaos. Ancient (and I mean ancient) evil is rising and a plucky gang of outgunned and outmanned folks have to stop it. If that sounds like familiar fantasy, well, trust me, it isn’t. As in, for instance, that plucky band being partially made up of a feminist assassin, a gay Mormon, a half-breed (in more ways than one) Native American, and a kid who walks around with his father’s fake eye in his pocket. This is not your father’s epic journey to a volcano to deliver a ring, believe me.

But I don’t want to get too much into plot because a) there’s so much of it, b) it won’t make much sense and c) I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun trying to make sense of so much plot. Suffice it to say you won’t be bored.

As for the characters, they pretty much won me over across the board. Jim and Mutt, I was immediately drawn to. Highfather took some more time to get to know, though his “can’t be killed” quality was intriguing from the start. Clay started out seemingly simple and opened up into a far more complex character as The Six-Gun Tarot continued. The same is true for Maude, whose mentor, though existing only for a little while in a flashback, is one of the most endearing and lively characters in the novel. And all of them have their secrets and mysterious pasts that are slowly revealed in nice teasing fashion. The villains, save for perhaps the biggest one, fare less well, but that was a minor issue.

The theology adds a nice level of moral complexity to the action/adventure aspect of the tale, along with another layer of structural and narrative complexity. And I truly enjoyed the non-singular aspect of it, what with the different take on basic Christianity, the Mormonism, the Native American mythology, Lilith, and Chinese creation tales. As one character says:

“Gods are nothing without people, and depending on what people you ask you will get many different answers to questions about Heaven and Hell, how the universe was made and how it will end . . . they are all correct; they all exist and have power, within their proper domains…”

I’m not sure I know how that actually works, but I’m OK with that.

The Six-Gun Tarot has a few issues. As mentioned, the bad guys aren’t all that complex (though one especially is downright chilling). The opening sections shift between points of view a little too quickly. And there are a few minor distractions with regard to some writing execution. But none of that made any difference to my enjoyment of this book, my strong recommendation, and my hope at the end that Belcher isn’t finished exploring these characters and/or this setting. After all, I still want to know about Old Lady Bellamy and those corpse-skins…

Release date: January 22, 2013. Nevada, 1869: Beyond the pitiless 40-Mile Desert lies Golgotha, a cattle town that hides more than its share of unnatural secrets. The sheriff bears the mark of the noose around his neck; some say he is a dead man whose time has not yet come. His half-human deputy is kin to coyotes. The mayor guards a hoard of mythical treasures. A banker’s wife belongs to a secret order of assassins. And a shady saloon owner, whose fingers are in everyone’s business, may know more about the town’s true origins than he’s letting on. A haven for the blessed and the damned, Golgotha has known many strange events, but nothing like the primordial darkness stirring in the abandoned silver mine overlooking the town. Bleeding midnight, an ancient evil is spilling into the world, and unless the sheriff and his posse can saddle up in time, Golgotha will have seen its last dawn… and so will all of Creation.

SHARE:  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail  FOLLOW:  facebooktwittergoogle_pluslinkedinrsstumblr

BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

7 comments

  1. This sounds like so much fun, Bill. The kitchen sink approach doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s a riot.

  2. Whoa!! So much packed into just one book? That sounds like an overdose of unadulterated fun mixed up with all thing wildly enjoyable.. After Stephen Kings towering magnum-opus Dark Tower that married fantasy with western and immportalized teh character of Roland of Gilead, I have been searching heaven and hell to get my hands on another book that gives a damn abt playing safe and gives a royal hotch-potch of fun and the fantasy and Western genres mixed up. This one just might be IT!!

  3. sandyg265 /

    I already have a request for this from my local library. Glad to see a good review.

  4. This wasn’t even on my radar. Will have to check it out!

  5. Two things I hate when Native Americans show up in fiction is ‘Pan-Native Americanism’ as if all Native Americans are one group which is as stupid as calling all European cultures the same. The other one is when people of mixed ethnic origin are called half-breed. Being a ‘half-breed’ myself I have always found it a bit dehumanizing because when people talk about breeds they are generally talking about animals.

    I’ll still pick this up because (ironically) love westerns and love it when magic nonsense is in a western setting.

  6. Brent, I know what you mean about both of them. I actually at one point in my review used “mixed-race”, but part of Mutt’s character is the sense of aloneness he has and the disdain he gets for being, as others see him, a “half-breed,” so I thought it important to use the phrase that is levied at him (and actually, the “breed” part isn’t so far off the point in some ways . . . ) It is dehumanizing as you say, but I think that’s the point, one emphasized by many of the characters–the outcast because they’re gay, female, etc.

    As for the Pan-Native, I know (I think) what you mean, but I think the Coyote mythology here isn’t so much Pan-Native as appropriate to this region and the mythos is pretty much the extent of the Native American culture that we see as Mutt is an outcast and a “townie”

    Glad you’ll pick it up–if you like that western setting + magic/fantasy I think you’ll enjoy it. Be interesting to see your response here once you read it

  7. Sign me up!!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Thoughtful Thursday: R.S. Belcher | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] Rod (R.S.) Belcher, author of The Six-Gun Tarot which I recently enjoyed and recommend to you. (Here’s my review.) Rod …
  2. Thoughtful Thursday [GIVEAWAY!]: Favorite debut authors | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - […] sometimes, debut authors surprise us, as has happened recently to me with R.S. Belcher with Six-Gun Tarot, Rachel Hartman …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>