Fiction Reviews

The Buntline Special

(2010) Mike Resnick, Pyr, £13.99 / US$16.00, trdpbk, 321pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14249-0

This is a western with a twist – it is the tale of the Earp brothers with a liberal dash of steampunk, magic, myth and an alternate history of its own. The story starts at a slow pace, setting the scene in the town of Tombstone with the author constructing a vivid backdrop – it starts out as you would expect a western to and then there are observations of inventions that have been implemented by Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline which have revolutionised transport, weapons and even the local brothel!

The author has made good use of characters from this era in time, making use of their names and quirks of their characters. One of the central characters is Doc Holliday who is aware that his health is failing but still sets out to get to the bottom of incidents of uncanny incidents that can only be attributed to very powerful Native Indian Medicine Men.

Thomas Edison and Ned Buntline have been drafted in to see whether a stop can be put to this use of magic, which is preventing the settlers from forging further into the USA but their actions and reputations mean they are targeted by notorious law breakers such as the Clantons. To ensure they are kept safe, the Earp brothers are called in with a mission to ensure Edison and Buntline’s safety.

I have never been a great fan of Westerns but enjoy steampunk and so was curious as to how this novel would work. It took me a little while to warm to the subject matter and the introduction to the new fangled technology could have been overpowering but was saved from this by the reactions the characters have to the technology in question. Some think the armour the two inventors have come up with is amazing; others such as Doc Holliday could do without it and would rather take their chances than be hindered by it slowing them up.

The use of Native American Indian magic adds a new twist, too – with one of the characters, Bat Masterson, is subject to an apt and cruel spell from one of the Medicine Men as punishment for a crime against them. The author takes a matter of fact view about this with the characters working out between themselves how to solve the problem that is set before them, discussing the implications and taking it in their stride. Doc Holliday finds himself face to face with an adversary known as “The Thing That Was Once Johnny Ringo” who provides a dilemma all of his own – how do you kill something that can’t be killed?

The Buntline Special is an entertaining novel, particularly regarding the wealth of inventions Edison and Buntline come up with, including robotic whores. I am not sure how feasible this is, and it is plot elements like that which require the reader to take a step back from reality and enter the author’s realm. There are points when the combination of magic and inventions detracts from the element of the western and the characters, and also times when the story could do with a little more action. However, there is also a lot of subject matter to combine into such a novel and the use of humour used in banter between characters, and their reactions to supernatural incidents, provides an interest factor all of its own.

This book would appeal to anyone with an interest in Steampunk, Westerns and possibly fantasy novels. The author has provided a summary of the figures who feature in the story and provides bios of who they were and what roles they played in the wild west.

Sue Griffiths

See also Ian's review of The Buntline Special.

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