Watt O’Hugh Underground: Better than first book

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsWatt O’Hugh Underground by Steven S. DrachmanWatt O’Hugh Underground by Steven S. Drachman

Watt O’Hugh Underground
is the follow-up by Steven S. Drachman to his early Western fantasy The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh. I was pretty “meh” toward the first book, though it had a strong close, but I mostly enjoyed Watt O’Hugh Underground throughout, despite having some issues.

Watt O’Hugh Underground picks up not too long after the events of Ghosts, with Watt hiding out in the desert trying to keep out of trouble, drinking up a storm, and plotting how to get even with the Sidonian for what they’ve done to him. Not too far into the book, though, his door is knocked down by Hester Smith, who says she has his means of vengeance at hand, if he’ll just help out with a little train robbery (it is a Western, after all). While Watt is busy robbing trains and then planning his assault on Sidonia, over in San Francisco, a reincarnated Chinese poet — Yu Dai-Ung — is doing his own part to stop the spread of evil (an ancient evil of course — the Red Eyebrows).

As mentioned, I wasn’t greatly taken by the first adventures of Watt, and I had a little bit of concern early on with Underground. The use of footnotes, for instance, became annoying and felt forced, and as with book one, much of Watt’s action is passive response, which ends up feeling a bit pallid after a while. But the book picked up quickly and I ended up enjoying it much more than the first. For all that he is the narrator of these memoirs of his, Watt actually isn’t all that compelling a character I find. I thought several characters outshone him in book one and that is the case here as well. Hester, for instance, is a breath of fresh air. But Yu’s storyline was probably my favorite, both for the character and for the sense of historical background, such as the visuals of old San Fran., and the realistic portrayal of prejudice back in the Old West. And for some humor, as when he finds the last of the Peking Indians and then has trouble finding a bar that both of them can enjoy since one bar might serve a “Chinaman” and another might serve an “Injun,” but finding a bar that would serve both sitting side by side? Crazy.

We also get a deeper look at the Sidonians, who remain a somewhat abstract evil. That’s still true here, but less so. Magic and plot points and motivations all still seem a bit scattered and arbitrary, as was the case with the first novel, but things are somewhat less frenetic. The humor was both more prevalent and worked better in this follow-up. The narration is highly discursive, veering frequently off the path of the main storyline into past histories, side stories, legends and myths; this works sometimes (most of the time), but now and then one wishes we wouldn’t have taken that particular detour.

If I hadn’t received both books at once, chances are I wouldn’t have continued on from Ghosts to Underground. But the improvement from the one to the other is significant and does therefore bode well for the next installment. I’m still not quite sold enough to wholeheartedly tell folks to jump on in — book one was just OK and while Watt O’Hugh Underground is enjoyable, it’s mildly so, though it has some strong moments. If Ghosts was a 2.5, then Underground is a 3; and one can hope the third in the series continues that trend, allowing for a full recommendation for the entire trilogy. Right now I’d say take a holding pattern. Unless you like Westerns or Old West-themed tales, in which case you should jump in.

The Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third (2011- ) Publisher: Watt O’Hugh III is a self-made man, Civil War vet, Time Roamer, former orphan of the New York slums and dime novel hero of the lost, magical West of the 1870s – and his riotous adventures mark one of the most original literary fantasy novels in recent memory. When O’Hugh returns to New York as the star of a Wild West show, he thinks his ship has come in. But that’s before he wakes up in a Wyoming penitentiary facing a murder charge, a corrupt Wall Street banker turned outlaw and a 2000-year-old Chinese mystery that could change the world forever. All he really wants is to woo Lucy Billings again, the woman he loved and lost in a gilded New York City before the War ….

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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