Family history has caught up with Hattie: her father’s past and connection to a terrifying demonic revolver has lead to a lot of bad attention. Attention that robs Hattie of everything and leaves her desperate to find her sister; in a trek across the magical Wild West with a range of forces arrayed against her. She’s backed by a group of allies - but how many of them can she trust and what is their real agendas?
Well, this is different. Well developed magical steampunk western. Ok, bizarre quirk? I hate westerns but I love paranormal westerns and steampunk westerns. Especially if you throw in some really excellent world building
And this world building is excellent. The way magic is incorporated into the actual world and businesses. Like the Pinkertons are a magical detective agency, the use of Zoom tunnels not just as magical transport, but the way they’ve been controlled and used basically in the same manner as railroad companies. We have magical rich and poor areas but we also have a world where magic is very much integrated into daily life with common ranchers using magic to protect their livestock, competitions regularly checking if people are carrying magic and a general assumption of magic as a common factor in everyone’s world without turning it into an odd fantasy elves-and-wizards-story. There is a suggestion of greater than normal technology as well - a definite steampunk edge but we don’t explore that much because magic and technology don’t mix much and these characters are all magical but it does promise a lot for future books.
But it’s also interesting how the magical setting actually works with the prejudices of the era (which continue to this day) and how it’s considered how magic would change history - or not. Like there’s an exploration of massacred Native Americans and they talk about how magic doesn’t generally work on metal (except very limited special circumstances): and no matter how magically powerful Native tribes were, because magic cannot stop bullets and modern weaponry is just deadly. This is something we see reinforced a lot which does a great job of emphasising why the Diablo is so special: magic is impressive but if men are pointing guns at you? Or gatling guns are being brought out?
Or there’s how Ling, a main character who is Asian not only faces lots of prejudice for being Chinese but this is also linked to his magic - magic doesn’t free him from prejudice but is in turn seen to be a reason to suspect him: his magic becomes suspect because he’s Asian. Similarly there’s a scene where we find that one of the reasons racists hate magic and are encouraging anti-magic sentiment is because magic isn’t racist. They are outraged and furious that magic can give Black people power, that it makes Black people equal or more than them (since Black sorcerers also seem to have equal status in the world). They examine a lot of the rage and prejudice and evil Ling faces as well. It’s interesting to see magic not just erasing prejudice in the world; nor being ignored as a factor in the world building that would affect magic.
Our protagonist is Hettie and she’s pretty awesome. Her overpowering motivation is to save her sister. She doesn’t have any super powers but manages to inherit the Diablo revolver through the plot. She’s a pretty quintessential ordinary-woman-thrust-into-extraordinary-circumstances and having to stand up. But she does this while being neither an utterly useless burden in need of carrying nor by being super-woman who effortlessly masters skills she shouldn’t have. She relies on her team, but also contributes to it. She makes mistakes and she makes bad decisions, but they’re bad decisions that are understandable given the circumstances, emotion and lack of options. It’s also interesting that she is described as unattractive or vaguely “plain” even before the book starts and during the book gains a substantial facial scar. This appears not to be a classic case of she-doesn’t-know-she’s-beautiful Urban Fantasy thing but a character who just isn’t classically beautiful and is in denial. Romance also doesn’t appear to be a major element of her story despite some do-si-so between her and Walker.
There’s also a female character who is classically feminine, rich, beautiful and doesn’t really like her. But what is interesting is that the book is clear that this character isn’t objectively bad (which is something a lot of Urban Fantasy and beyond gets wrong). Hettie doesn’t like her at all. That’s not because she’s a bad person or deserves that dislike - this is Hettie‘s issues
I like that Hettie‘s quest involves a lot of dark places and Hettie having to do some pretty dark things while continually trying to rationalise things and not always doing a great job. Her quest to save her sister leaves a lot of bodies in her wake and not all of them can be considered “good deaths”, throw in the actual nature of Diablo, the cursed demon gun, the choices Hettie is forced to make and, ultimately how this book ends for her tells me we’re going to have a powerfully dark character for future books
I even like her little sister Abbie and the little we see of her at the end because, again, it points to a complex character who isn’t the morally pure innocent Hettie wants to believe.
I also really like how all of these characters seem to have their own very real personality and history. Ling is revealed to have a much more to his motivations than we originally see as well as having several acts in his own storyline. Woodrow again has his own motivations and history and Uncle Jeremiah’s whole relationship with Hettie is so complex and layered and full of family drama and love/hate/loyalty/resentment that it’s a perfect mess. All these characters feel real. Throw in a background world that has a few POC and takes a little time to nod towards the effects of racism (though the afterword of the book has a big piece on how the author consulted Native American sources for authenticity etc which is really nice… but there wasn’t actually a lot of Native American characters here barring a small band of ghosts) and one of the main characters is Asian. There are no LGBTQ characters
This book serves as both an incredibly fun story with powerful characters, a great world and lots of twists and hard choices. It also serves as a truly excellent foundation for a series that I am so very very eager to explore as we’ve set up not just a great protagonist but a very unique one. I’m looking forward to this series.