Adams, Guy. The Good, the Bad and the Internal [Solaris, 2013]
The idea of mixing up the era of Billy the Kid with fantasy is as old as, well, the Wild Wild West. But this, the first part of a trilogy, takes a fresh spin on it, and is a great adventure tale that manages to hold its fantastical premise together with some deft mixing of the daft and the sublime.
It spends much of its time introducing all the various characters, in disconnected sections, as they travel across America, fighting evil forces and each other - rather like Lord of the Rings, only without the annoying pipe music. We meet a fake preacher, a Victorian inventor, a team of monks, a gang of freaks and a gunslinger as old as the desert, amongst many others.
They all are for various reasons heading for a mythical town called Wormwood, which is claimed to be a way to enter Heaven without dying. It shimmers into sight every few centuries somewhere in the world before vanishing and leaving legend and rumour in its wake. This time it is scheduled for the American Wild West, just after the Civil War.
And it's a era that Adams is clearly in love with (as he admits in his humourous biog). Through his passionate descriptive detail, you can almost feel the sun and dust, and smell the sweat and blood. It's tremendous fun for any Spaghetti Western fan.
As well as the main ingredient of this setting, he stirs in some steampunk seasoning courtesy of the inventor, and a whole ladle of religious fantasy. What you end up with is a gumbo of the hardboiled universe of a Sergio Leone with the far-fetched but enjoyable action and horror of, say, a quirky mongrel of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Solomon Kane.
For, as they near the town, nature turns against them. In fact, it unleashes hell on them, and the novel heads towards more magical realms. Imagine a souped-up locomotive being chased by cyborg Indian warriors and hordes of bats, and you'll get the jist. However, whilst the mutant creatures and high-concept fight scenes are entertaining enough, they don't entirely convince as spectacle. Compared to the Spaghetti Westerns he loves, a gunfight just can't come across on the page quite so well as on the screen, although he makes an impressive attempt. Also, while the grim-faced and stone-hearted Western elements were believable to me, the monsters made out of glass and wood, or the swarms of killer bugs at times felt, well, a bit daft to be honest. I found myself occasionally wanting to see a film adaption instead, where I could stare passively at CGI nonsense whilst scoffing popcorn. But maybe I'm unfairly more forgiving of movies than books.
The dialogue and narration are superb. I love a good dark-hearted metaphor, and he these delivers in spades -
"It was the sort of smile an alligator wore when convinced its meat was just about rotten enough to chew". -
This and some intriguing conflicts between the key players kept me hooked through all the switches between stories and characters, and occasional slips in reality, grounding my mind in the hot plains and faded saloons.
Slight spoiler: this is only part one of three and is all about the journey to Wormwood. Part two is not out for a year so don't expect to be reading about the town just yet. The book ends on a fun climax, telling us the adventure has only just begun. Bring on part two next year, as this is darn good, rootin'-tootin', gun-slinging fun.
Baseline assessment : 7/10
Bonuses : +1 for reminding me how much I loved Clint Eastwood before he turned into a Romney-loving fool; +1 for juggling multiple storylines with aplomb; +1 for the phrase "He scratched at his face with a sound as rough as a gang of armadillos fucking".
Penalties: -1 for not quite handling the sudden lurches into fantasy convincingly; -1 for one of the character's names changing temporarily by mistake
Nerd Coefficient : 8/10. "Well worth your time and attention."