Review: The Shotgun Arcana

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Review: The Shotgun Arcana

In the two years since I finished The Six Gun Tarot – the first book of the Golgotha series and R.S. Belcher’s debut novel – I’ve managed to read his urban fantasies Nightwise and The Brotherhood of the Wheel, and enjoyed the heck out of both of them. I just found out that the third book of the Golgotha series is coming out in June, so I’ve now officially run out of reasons to put off reading the second.

The Shotgun Arcana starts decades before the main story, with Malachi Bick – prominent Golgotha town citizen and also exiled angel – joining the rescue party that finds out exactly how some of the members of the Donner Party managed to survive being trapped in the frozen wilderness with no food. Only in this version of 1840’s California, an ancient relic was responsible for sparking the atrocities that winter. The relic’s influence is contagious, and spreading fast.

Twenty-three years later, the most horrible people from around the world find themselves called to Nevada. A tiny town on the edge of the 40-Mile desert is becoming the nexus of murderers and cannibals (and worse), along with angelic battles, mad science, Pinkerton detectives, American-Indian magic, and a trapped horror from the dawn of humanity. Things are about to get very weird in the town of Golgotha.

They might, just possibly, get even weirder than they already are.

The first book in the series did all the heavy lifting of introducing the characters, so we’re able to jump right into the stories of the fascinating people who make their home in Golgotha. Sheriff Jon Highfather is still maintaining something close to law and order, assisted by deputies Mutt (shape-changing half-coyote) and Jim Negry (carrier of the jade Eye of the Moon that belonged to his murdered father). Widow Maude Stapleton is still a secret member of the Daughters of Lilith, and she’s been training her daughter Constance all of her terrifying fighting arts. And Clay Turlough is still keeping storekeeper Auggie Shultz’s deceased wife’s head alive in a jar.

(Clay would be one of the biggest surprises in this book. He’s brilliant, comes up with all of the fascinating inventions, has no social skills, is obsessed with anything having to do with death, and will experiment with anydamnthing that catches his attention, whether it’s using human eyes to make a camera or secretly harvesting pieces of demonic intruders to make…something…in his shed. And I couldn’t ever predict exactly what he was going to do next, or why.)

But just as it was with the first book, my favorite character is the town itself, and all the truly bizarre things that happen there.

“Widow Stonehouse says the people in the paintings on her walls are moving about again, but no sign of the Marquis of Stain or his knights in any of the pictures yet, so hopefully it’s just weird with a little ‘w,’ and not something we have to tend to for a spell.”

Belcher could write more than a dozen short stories just based on things mentioned in this book; he loves to throw in random bizarre happenings without any explanation. That quote about Widow Stonehouse? We don’t find out anything about that, it’s just one of the many updates Mutt gives Sheriff Highfather after a particularly long week. People trying to figure out what the latest commotion is will mutter about “bat-people again,” “buildings coming alive,” or those black-eyed children who took an entire family but left their shadows behind. The sheriff’s gun case is stocked with a random assortment of things – including wooden stakes and crucifixes – in addition to regular ammo, and everyone has gotten so used to living in a nightmare that their reactions are always hilariously blasé.

“And then there was that time with that four-hundred-year-old Renaissance alchemist and his army of clockwork people. That reminds me, I want a raise.”

All of this is made even better by Belcher’s writing style. There’s just the right amount of western slang; phrases like “make no nevermind” work so well for me, and the author doesn’t overuse them enough to make them sound hokey. I love the easy way dialog is combined with the characters’ actions, so conversations flow easily and don’t get weighted down with too much description. And of course like all Belcher’s novels, the characters are always making entertainingly smart-aleck comments at each other, or delivering efficiently brutal threats at people who are really asking for it.

I’m a damn fine shot,” Kate said. “I can shoot that little amusement you call a pecker off you from over here quicker than you can kill a patient from incompetence.”

Not that this book is mostly comedy. Far from it. Someone is murdering prostitutes in Golgotha, and the carnage is bad enough to even unsettle people who are used to goat-suckers and demonic worms. For the first half of the book the action pauses every few chapters to highlight the latest murderer, torturer, or renegade soldier on the way to Nevada. Many of them are based on real-life serial-killers, and all of them are truly horrible, the very worst examples of Man’s inhumanity to Man. The carnage that results is a little hard to read at time, and it only gets worse as you see how much these people have been inspired by an angel who lost his mind a long, long time ago.

The action ramps up as the invading army descends on Golgotha, and then ramps up again when the town’s defenders come up with a plan to save the day, and then ramps up again when that doesn’t work, and then outside players make an appearance and everything descends into pure chaos.

“So don’t talk to me about evil in this world, don’t talk to me about senseless cruelty. If there is some kind of a plan, we all missed the damn meeting.”

Sure, this book has very sweet and believable romances, and several hapless people trying to have an ordinary life, and others are having to ask very good questions about why an all-powerful God would allow the kinds of things that happen throughout the world, every the-shotgun-arcana - coverday, since the beginning of time. But you’ve also got gun battles and knife fights. derring-do and dastardly deeds, impressive martial arts and gunplay by at least three kick-ass females (Belcher’s very good at writing kick-ass females), plus a duel between mad scientists and attacks by pirates…pirates for heaven’s sake. It’s insane, it’s over-the-top, and it’s ridiculously fun.

I know I’m always pointing out passages in books that I want to made into a movie, but I really would love to see a director take on these books. If Hollywood is determined to make movies that are jam packed with special effects and spectacle, they could do a lot worse than an adaptation of this series.