The Shotgun Arcana
by R.S. Belcher
Cover Artist: Raymond Swanland
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765374585
Date: 07 October 2014 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Shotgun Arcana, is the sequel to The Six-Gun Tarot, a very impressive first novel set in the mysterious town of Golgotha, Nevada in the post-civil war era. Like the first book it is a mix of dark fantasy, horror, Mormonism, and the wild west. While the first book seemed over-the-top with lots of different characters' stories crammed into one volume, barely under control, this novel is tighter and more restrained. Readers should be cautioned that this book is extremely violent. The antagonists are not only some of the world's most brutal killers, they are also cannibals.
The beauty of this book is the characters. Some of the residents of Golotha include an immortal sheriff, an Indian who is the son of Coyote, a mad scientist trying to learn how to bring people back from the dead, an angel who is the local crime boss and the most hated man in town, the queen of the air pirates, a lady detective, the last of the Daughters of Lilith and her daughter (who is being trained as the next one), the guardian of Mormons’ secret divine treasure (and their mystical sword), and a Jack-the-Ripper style killer of prostitutes. The interaction among the characters is a lot of the fun of the book.
Shotgun Arcana opens in 1847 when a rescue party encountered a cannibal cult who worship a skull. While the angel Bick recovers the skull, which had been in the safekeeping of a different angel, the skull's teeth were missing, distributed by crows to vicious killers. Twenty-three years later, the killers are summoned to Golotha.
Meanwhile, the town is struggling to recover after the events of the prior novel. The town's deputies try to find the man or creature murdering the prostitutes of the Dove's Rest while the sheriff goes after train robbers. At the same time, an element of romance hits the town as Deputy Mutt begins to date Maude, the Daughter of Lilith, only to be attacked by the KKK for being with a white woman, while the kid deputy starts to court Maude’s daughter. Another subplot is the late night activities that are causing shopkeeper Auggie to lie to his bride-to-be. And, as if the characters from the first book were not enough, three new female characters are introduced.
This book has almost the feel of a Wild Cards mosaic novel (albeit with one author), as there is no single protagonist but instead an ensemble of characters who for much of the book are having separate, but occasionally intersecting adventures. Inevitably, some characters get more attention than others, and I would have liked to have seen more of the mayor's story. Unlike the first book, not everything is resolved as the author introduces a few threads to be developed more in the next book.
One note of caution is the high level of violence, descriptions of the effects of violence (such as dead bodies), and cannibalism. For some readers this may push the book past the thin line separating dark fantasy from horror.
While Six Gun Tarot had enough ideas, plotlines, and characters for a whole trilogy by itself, Shotgun Arcana is tighter and more under the author's control, but has less of the gonzo, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel that made the first book stand out. Readers who like Westerns, dark fantasy, ensemble shows (or superhero team comics) will enjoy this series but should start with the first book. Readers who do not have a strong tolerance for violence and gore should go elsewhere.