Edited by Juliana Rew
(Third Flatiron Publishing, Spring 2017, pb, 188 pp.)
[Editor’s note: I have asked for this review to be split between two reviewers. Laura Gobourn reviews the first half of the anthology while Jennifer Burroughs takes a look at the remaining stories.]
Reviewed by Laura Gobourn
Principia Ponderosa is an anthology with all of its short stories set in the Weird West. A mixture of steampunk, magic and duels at high noon, these stories all evoke the feel of the Wild West in its heyday with a wonderful sf/fantasy twist.
The first story is “Blazing Beamard” by Stanley Webb. Special Agent Bull has been tasked with bringing down a gold-stealing crook known as Blazing Beamard. The locals in the aptly named town of Nowhere all refuse to help, leaving Bull with only a whore named Fang as his guide. They soon find themselves in the belly of the beast, as a mechanical dragon fights against a real one. The story felt a bit rushed and could have done with more exposition to flesh out the world and characters. That being said, the writing was humorous in places and certainly evoked the feel of the West.
“Lampblack and Dust” by J. L. Forrest offers a tantalising glimpse of a world familiar enough to feel very different. Our heroine is an Orioness by the name of Faireweather. We join her as she rides into New Water on her motorcycle in search of her family after an Ice-duster attack. As an Orioness, Faireweather has ‘magic ink’—tattoos on her body which can be used for divination and can spread from her to take animal forms. It’s with these abilities that she sets off to save her niece. J. L. Forrest sets a fast pace but handles this strange world with a convincing assurance. Faireweather is presented as a strong, capable woman more than used to dealing with life’s inequalities and suspicions. This story left me wanting more.
In “The Quiet Crime” by Jordan Ashley Moore, a retired sheriff finally puts an unsolved case to rest. In the beginning this story seems the closest to our modern reality. We follow Sam Stein, a retired Sheriff looking for closure and checking up on an old friend. However, as things progress a distinctly alien theme develops as they discuss some of the odd things that have happened in the past. By the end we are left wondering just what any of us can really know about our neighbours. I found this story to be well written and full of atmosphere.
“The Monster Hunter” by Angus McIntyre is a story about a man full of bravado and swagger being undone. The sense of showmanship that our hunter Whitmore Braddock brings to Litton’s Hollow, a backwater settlement, is vividly written. Braddock has come to be the first man to ever capture a Wicker, the local bogeyman of the nearby swamp. Braddock has a long pedigree of catching the uncatchable but our young heroine Kit soon finds out the secrets of Braddock’s remarkable record. I won’t give away any more as the twist is more than worth the read alone.
“The Groks of Kruk County” by Columbkill Noonan is a story rich in fantasy. We meet an alien species called the Groks on an alien world. They may be scaly with snouts and fangs but their society is all too familiar with inequality and drug use. Cron and Auda are two of the lowest Groks in their community, their minds totally addled by their drug of choice—Crup. Things then take a surreal turn as a Crup fuelled raid ends with Cron and Auda being killed by their neighbour, not that being dead stops their lust for Crup or mischief. Their ‘life’ as ghosts is vividly described and it is clear that Columbkill Noonan had great fun writing this story. Near the end things change again as the Groks’ world is invaded by a creature that looks like wobbly pink worms with sticks. It’s an interesting take on human colonisation seen from the other side. What will become of Cron and Auda in this brave new world?
“Mourning Dove” by Jackson Kuhl is a thought-provoking read. How would you feel if, whilst reading the morning paper, your death was foretold? This is a very real concern for the residents of Mourning Dove, whose printing press can predict the future. Riding into town, Jed Vega and his gang of bank robbing bandits find their arrival has been foretold. Fearing some sort of setup the gang rides to the newspaper office to take matters into their own hands. The bewilderment of Jed Vega is beautifully written as is the downcast acceptance of the people left in Mourning Dove. This story leaves the reader wondering what would you do if your name appeared in connection with bad news?
“Willing” by Premee Mohamed is a darker, more thought-provoking story than many of the fun romps I’ve read to this point. “Willing” is a story about a farmer and his family. Arnold and Marla have several grown children who have all moved away, but a late, unexpected pregnancy has left them with little Clover, a young girl to old parents. She helps on the farm and with the calving and with the odd offerings the old gods demand for a good harvest and the safe birth of a calf. Suddenly a decision of biblical importance is forced on them. What would a parent do for the safety of their child? The somewhat bleak world of these characters is convincingly written and you feel real empathy for their plight.
♣ ♣ ♣
Reviewed by Jennifer Burroughs
“The Great Man’s Iron Horse” by Mark Mellon
More atmosphere than story, “The Great Man’s Iron Horse” paints a fun picture made up of steampunk and Western elements that fails to follow through on the many plotlines that are set up. A giant steam powered horse walking across America and transporting passengers like a train is an engaging image, but it’s not quite enough to make a story on its own. Stuffed with interesting things that contribute nothing to the progression of the plot, the abrupt ending is wholly unsatisfactory. Too many characters are introduced, some things happen for no reason at all, and not a single promise made to the reader is followed through on. “The Great Man’s Iron Horse” would make an excellent first chapter of a novel, but fails as a standalone story.
“The Hunt” by Salinda Tyson
Depicting a vengeful spirit’s efforts to stop the wanton slaughter of buffalo by heavily armed tourists on a train, “The Hunt” paints a powerful image but lacks enough of a plot or characters to build a story around it. The tale begins with a vague “Grandmother” figure summoning the spirit, but never returns to her, leaving the Grandmother an empty trope unnecessary to the plot. The spirit boards the train and starts putting her ghostly hands into people’s chests; a few people die of heart attacks, but most have a magical change of heart about killing the buffalo. The rules of this world are inconsistent; another passenger with no unique traits is labeled as “the one whose heart could be changed” and gets an arrow to the heart, which seems to have the same effect as the ghost hand. This makes it difficult for a reader to suspend disbelief and immerse one’s self in the world. Overall, “The Hunt” feels like an incomplete thought with undeveloped potential.
“La Loca” by Robert Walton
An exciting and creepy ghost story set against a rich Western backdrop, “La Loca” is a fun read. The main character depicts Joaquin Murrietta, the historical inspiration for Zorro, as an old man ready to ride out in the middle of the night to save a kidnapped girl. A spirit that avenges women tags along and helps with the rescue effort. Walton’s prose takes the reader deep into the desert air of Monterrey County, and you can almost smell the wood smoke. Most of the characters feel like real people, with excellent dialogue. The story is for the most part well-paced and difficult to put down, although there are a few flaws that stand out against otherwise excellent writing. The appearance of the ghost, La Loca, in the second act feels a bit forced, as there was no dialogue or other clues to prepare the reader for her. The kidnapped girl is also undeveloped, a dull cliché that contrasts the richness of the other characters. Otherwise, “La Loca” is a fun and attention-holding piece of horror with a strong Western aesthetic.
“The Gleaming” by John J. Kennedy
With intriguing elements like a steampunk cyborg, “The Gleaming” is a fun mix of western aesthetic and steampunk concepts, but weak on plot and character. It’s a fun premise and a delightful read for the first two acts, but collapses under the weight of too many subplots and an improbable ending.
“The Gleaming” follows two characters, Lloyd the steampunk cyborg, and an awkward Englishman (the unnamed first person narrator). Lloyd is running from lawmen, and the Englishman is travelling to meet Daphne, his arranged-marriage fiancée. The Englishman’s fiancée happens to live at the plantation that enslaves Ayasshe, a Native girl from Lloyd’s past, but this has no effect on what happens to Lloyd, or the Englishman, or Ayasshe. This is also the case when the Englishman’s engagement to Daphne goes wrong. All of this is concluded with a clichéd ending that feels very unlikely.
“Closing the Frontier” by Philip DiBoise
An excellent piece of short fiction, “Closing the Frontier” explores the conflict of freedom and bureaucracy beneath the shadow of a terrifying robot. The story takes place on a platform overlooking a milling crowd of Old West archetypes, from cattle rustlers to prostitutes to Sioux. The crowd is lined up for a peaceful end to an era, trading in their archetypal symbols for time cards and factory coveralls. The orderly world of The Manifestor, the robot looming behind the platform, has come to transform the frontier into another bastion of progress. But that order comes at a price. “Closing the Frontier” is both entertaining and philosophical, using the narrow lens of short speculative fiction to examine some big questions.
“No County for Young Men” by Martin Clark
This is a fun and well-crafted piece of Weird West fiction. Told from the first-person perspective of Red Mahler, the language of his inner monologue flows naturally and feels like the reader is really in his head. His companion, Rosie, is a gun with an AI and a low opinion of the man coming to kill Red. The world building is full of grounding details; Red has to find an electrical outlet to let Rosie charge, waiting around like one would for a cell phone. There’s a twist at the end that made me cheer, with some subtle setup that caught me by surprise. Each element of the story flows into the other, the world is fully fleshed out, and the dialogue carries just enough of a Texan-esque cadence to create atmosphere without being campy. “No County for Young Men” is one of the stories that makes the Principia Ponderosa anthology worth picking up.
“The Wind Father” by Geoff Gander
A well-executed piece of Lovecraftian horror set in the Canadian frontier, “The Wind Father” follows a group of Mounted Police into the mysterious hills they were warned against. The story opens with a gory scene; settler families have been murdered in their homes, with women and children carried off in the direction of a no man’s land. Sergeant Blake is determined to rescue the most recent victim, defying his commanding officer, and ignoring the advice of the local Cree chief, who knows what lurks in the hills.
Gander expertly builds up the tension, each scene just a little bit stranger or more disturbing than what came before. Blake is a genuinely good person whose concept of reality is gradually being broken down over the course of the story, and when the horrifying end finally comes, his terror is palpable.
Grins and Gurgles (Flash Humor)
The Grins and Gurgles section of Principia Ponderosa is a collection of amusing essays, imagined brochures, and flash fiction with a humorous twist. These pieces don’t quite fit the Weird West theme of the anthology, but they are all good for a laugh.
“Etiquette for the Space Traveller: Dealing with the Ship’s Cat” by Lisa Timpf
Reading like an entry in a space tourism guidebook, “Etiquette for the Space Traveller” advises spaceship passengers on the proper way to treat and act towards the resident ship’s cat. These are not the cats that we know today, these sport such enhancements as AI upgrades and genetic modifications. Timpf’s presentation of speculative details about cats in space makes for a fun read you don’t have to be a cat lover to appreciate.
“Gardening in a Post-Apocalyptic World” by Sheryl Normandeau
A press release from a gardening business in a post-apocalyptic world, this is a clever piece depicting a future where there is ample opportunity to profit in rebuilding the Earth’s wrecked ecosystem. The jokes about learning to love genetically modified food made me laugh out loud.
“The JPEG of Dorian Gray” by Brian Trent
This story combines the classic gothic tale of Dorian Gray with the immortality of things posted on the internet, to great and humorous effect. Some unknown millennia in the future, long after humanity has disappeared from the Earth, the immortal Dorian Gray still roams, searching. Long before he grew tired of being immortal, camera phones were invented and Dorian made a mistake. The humor is well paced, the prose flows between the present and flashbacks easily, and the story overall is a well-crafted piece of dark humor and fantasy.