When the blood fails, the Father of Monsters rises again to devour all.
The last installment in R.S. Belcher’s Golgatha series ended with the widow Maude Stapleton leaving her strange little town in Nevada in pursuit of her father. Martin Anderton has given up trying to talk sense into his only child, so he’s claimed custody of Maude’s inheritance, and her daughter, and Maude is headed to South Carolina to get both of them back.
Maude isn’t about to let anything get between her and her daughter, although the male-dominated law of the 1870’s, the reappearance of a monster she accidentally set free, and members of her own order – The Daughters of Lilith – are all set on making things pretty difficult for her. Fortunately Maude was trained as an assassin by the famous Anne Bonny – who also happens to be her her great-great-great-great-grandmother – and Maude has enough of the legendary pirate queen’s blood in her veins to make her a force to be reckoned with.
We’ve been hearing about Maude’s ancestor for two books now. In The Queen of Swords we finally get to learn Anne’s story, how she ran away to become a pirate, how she became the most feared woman on the high seas, and how she joined the Daughters of Lilith and traveled to the mythical bone city of Carcosa to face mankind’s oldest enemy.
The town of Golgotha itself gets just a few mentions here (one of which is a letter from Mutt, offhandedly describing some of the random dangerous weirdness that Golgotha citizens take for granted)(the letter also gives a nod and a wink to a certain weird podcast I love, so cue the jumping up and down and going “Eeeeee!”), but for the most part this book centers around the widow Stapleton and her fellow sisters in the Daughters of Lilith.
Maude spends a lot of time reflecting on just how the hell she became who she is: a deadly fighter, pirate’s descendant, widow to an abusive gambler, in love with a half-coyote outcast sheriff’s deputy, and at war with her condescending father. But we also get many many scenes with the terrifyingly talented Maude, shocking everyone by taking on multiple opponents at once and making impossible moves like kicking a gun out of someone’s hand, catching it in mid-air and then throwing it into someone else’s face like a tomahawk. The way the author writes the action is a hell of a lot of fun to read (both for Maude and for the many other kick-ass women in this book), but I loved all the quieter details we got about Maude’s training and the home she inherited from her Gran. Well, technically inherited, but her father has other ideas.
Maude’s enemies in this novel are both magical and mundane. Several chapters center around the court battle between Maude and her father. Being the late 1800’s, you can just imagine how infuriating that can get with judges and lawyers who basically have a gentleman’s agreement that justice for the female half of the population is kind of…optional. I’m sure the cringeworthy attitudes of Maude’s father and his lawyer are historically accurate, but sometimes it felt like the supernatural enemies (Lovecraftian monsters with extra heads, or bone spikes, or a face that looks like it was made by a painter who didn’t know what human faces look like) were almost polite by comparison. Human or not, the bad guys are all sufficiently horrible to make it very satisfying when someone else is actually able to get the upper hand.
And then there’s Anne Bonny, the belle of this particular ball and the face on the gorgeously-painted cover. Devastatingly intelligent but not concerned with manners, drinks and swears enough to even make sailors uncomfortable, and with a nightmarish upbringing that she doesn’t waste time moaning about, Anne is determined to find the mythical city of Carcosa and come away with enough treasure to set herself up for life, even if she has to bareknuckle brawl her way across an entire continent to do it.
(Side note: Belcher has a lot to say about how the Western world has treated Africa, and some of it seems to echo the way he portrays the treatment of women in the same time period. It’s interesting how in both cases the excuse for their behavior seems to be, “We can treat you however we want, because God didn’t make you smart enough to stop us.”)
Anne’s dialog has all of the clever threats and sarcastic comments that I enjoy so much about Belcher’s writing, along with a pirate’s lingo and a devil-may-care attitude that lets her learn just enough about the rules to know how to effectively break them. She also has the ability to care about others more than she wants to admit, enough to get good and pissed off about the state of the world sometimes, so it’s no wonder the people who can survive being in her presence tend to fall head over heels for her.
“I’ve never seen your like; you fight like a tiger, you drink and swear like a sailor, and you are more lovely than the dawn after a battle.”
Maude’s adventure to rescue her daughter from the Daughters of Lilith who have kidnapped her to perform a ritual to save their (did I not mention that storyline? There’s a lot going on in this book) parallels Anne’s journey to Carcosa a century earlier. The powers surrounding a city that was made at the start of creation by gods means that time can twist and fold back on itself, making for some disturbing moments and a storyline that’s never stops at one place long enough to get boring. And if you need more than that you can just bask in Belcher’s usual flair for gorgeous over-the-top images of moon gates and magic ships, libraries that exist in another plane of existence, giants made of seawater and a room with a floor made of jewels covered in bone dust.
Plus swashbuckling; lots of that.