Outlaw witches involving themselves in labour disputes against authoritarian capitalists may sound a tad too tailor-made for current times, but this novel by Alex Wells (aka Alex Acks) has been brewing for over a decade. The multiple apparent mash-ups (Matewan meets Dune? The Molly Maguires meets Avatar? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid visit Tatooine?) could have made for a very fragmented novel but almost surprisingly the story gets tighter as it progresses and the novel stakes out it’s territory as its own.
I have to say that I stalled initially with Chapter 1 which crams in a lot about the central character Hob – a member of an outlaw gang of mercenary bikers on a remote mining planet, who also has psychic powers and one eye. It felt like it was trying too hard to paint a single bad-ass character. However, this is misleading. Hob emerges as a woman of depth and complexity but primarily due to the more quietly introduced character Mag. Hob’s adoptive sister and former friend, appears initially as a contrast with Hob, fewer overt features, initially less in control of events around her and less easily described in a sentence. Yet Mag and Hob’s friendship forms the central emotional relationship of the story and this achieves both greater depth of characters and a sense of connectedness between the various groups of people on the planet.
To the story: its the future and interplanetary travel is controlled by a single corporation, which uses quasi-psychic ‘Weathermen’ to navigate trans-dimensional rifts. This same company has monopolistic control over a mining planet, Tanegawa’s World. Dry, and dusty and prone to dust storms and strange magnetic phenomena, Tanegawa’s world struggles to operate modern technology outside of its one big city. Brutality and tough working conditions, have led to a growing air of discontent between the mining towns and the corporation. Meanwhile, the Ghost Wolves operate as a kind of mercenary gang of bandit/vigilantes, selling ‘services’ to the miners that the corporation won’t provide (including rough frontier justice). Led by Old Nick, the gang includes Hob, a woman who shares a secret with Old Nick – they both possess some kind of ‘witchy’ psychic (pyrotechnic) power mysteriously connected to the land itself.
The sense of a Western is quite overt and again, I found it initially distracting until I got into the rhythm of it. The set-up of Tanegawa’s World’s strange properties allows this nineteenth-century vibe to make sense within the wider universe of high-tech space travel.
By the end of the novel, there is still a lot left unanswered (in particular what the heck are those blue crystals?) but with an action fuelled crescendo of a finale, it is hardly disappointing to reach the end of the book knowing that there are plenty of pieces ready for the sequel. Again, what felt in Chapter 1 to be a book about a single character, turned out to have me emotionally invested in the fate of multiple people (e.g. Coyote – and his spoiler who is spoilering for the spoiler but actually spoilering for the spoilers).
[Also: I stopped part way after I got distracted by the nonsense from our Rabid friends around the Corroding Trashfire. Goodness – if you want to appreciate somebody’s prose, try reading some crappy Vox Day book rapidly for a couple of days and THEN go back to a book with an intelligent author and some proper production values. Wow, returning to Hunger Makes the Wolf after that and the prose felt like it had been spun out of gossamer strands of crystallised honey. ]