Books: The Buntline Special

In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings.  That’s a lot of genre-melding.  Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.

Pros:  Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West.  The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.

Cons:  The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times.  The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.

Review:  The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out).  We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg  on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world.  So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author…  We’re in.

Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly.  Mostly, it works.  Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona.  The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers.  Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.  Sound like any one of many familiar movies?  Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.

But wait – the U.S. has not absorbed all the territory between the Mississippi and the Pacific in this alternate 1880s, because the Indians have powerful shamans whose magic has halted the Westward expansion.  Towns, like Tombstone, have cropped up here and there.  Inventor Tom Edison, working with builder and engineer, Ned Buntline, have settled in Tombstone at the behest of the the government to design technology capable of defeating the Indian magic.  They’ve already produced electric lighting (naturally), a steam-driven horseless coach, powerful repeating guns, and super-hard brass armor.

As Doc Holliday arrives and learns many of these facts, he also learns that the Cowboys have attempted to kill Edison, likely at the behest of one of two powerful shamans:  the Cheyenne, Hook-nose, or the Apache, Geronimo.  The Earps are attempting to protect the inventor, so Doc, Bat, and the boys set to figuring out who, exactly, after Edison and Buntline.

Johnny Ringo shows up – an undead Johnny Ringo, seemingly immune to revolver fire.  He and Doc strike up their strange rivalry/friendship.  And we march towards and an alternate Showdown at the OK Corral.

Resnick is cheating a little here.  These characters are so familiar, he doesn’t have to spend much ink or effort on them.  They behave about how you’d expect if you read the history and watched some of the movies.  The dialogue surely rings true – a quite enjoyable read – but Resnick’s seeming reliance on writing every single conversation to its conclusion and going from scene to scene (like a movie) slows the pace considerably.  I really enjoyed his version of Doc Holliday, but some scenes could have been effectively summarized to better effect.  We could have learned more about the events behind the conflict between the Earps and the Cowboys.  This book reads like a short novel that has been stretched to the limit to hit a page count.

But Mike Resnick can do what he likes.  If he wants to re-imagine certain familiar Western moments in this steam-and-sorcery fashion, we will likely be there to read a few more of the tales.  The book goes fairly quickly, and some of the concepts, if not novel, are at least well executed and fun.

Bottom Line:  If you think you may like this kind of Western/steampunk/fantasy mash-up, and you don’t mind some well-written if excessive dialogue, give this series a try.

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