For the last two or three years, I’ve hankered for weird westerns at the turn of the year. Don’t know why.
So, after finishing Make Me King and also wanting to read more Blackmore, I bought this book.
Review: The Majestic 311, Keith C. Blackmore, 2019.
As the subtitle says, this is a “very weird western”.
It opens with a classic western motif: a train robbery.
Leland Baxter’s and his six men are sketched quickly with Blackmore’s typically skillful dialogue.
Baxter is a natural leader of men, opposed to unnecessary violence, and willing to let his men complain – even if he doesn’t do anything about their complaints. Former circus strongman “Shorty” Charlie Williams is his taciturn and loyal henchman. Another of his friends is James “Jimmy” Norquay, former buffalo hunter, who met Baxter in a residential school for Indians Norquay being a Metis. Mackenzie Cass is a cattle rustler possessed of surprising bits of learning. Gilbert Butler is a gunrunner from America. His partner is the volatile, profane, and frequently insolent Eli Gallant. The last is our protagonist, orphan Nathan Rhodes, who once sought a career as a lawman before killing a boy who resisted arrest.
It’s a cold, wintery night in the Canadian Rockies. There’s a train from Canada bound for western Canada with the payroll of a mining company. And, since it has to slow to start climbing the Spirals, a winding tunnel going through the Rockies, it’s the perfect place to hop on it.
That’s the plan. But when Nathan and Baxter find a literally skeletal engineer in the cab – who opens the throttle up before leaping over the side, and the rest of the gang find way too many cars and no passengers, things get strange.
And Blackmore keeps them strange with the train itself, as Rhodes notes, becoming a rabbit hole, a portal to other worlds.
Around the middle of the book, things get science fictional with a humorous interlude. And, at the end, things get magical.
I can’t say anymore lest I ruin Blackmore’s surprises. The gang is going to expend lots of ammo and dynamite before things are over. And, of course, not everyone is going to live through the story. The dialogue of sometimes contentious men, largely strangers to each other, bonding other pressure is good.
This book moves briskly. It’s 367 pages long, and I read it in a day.
But, however much the train accelerated and things got weirder and weirder, the whole thing had the feeling of a lot of scenes from other stories strung together and that the train and its story wasn’t going to end up, for me at least, at a satisfactory place.
And I was right.
To be sure, Blackmore laid the tracks for his ending. It’s coherent. I appreciated that Blackmore worked science fictional elements into the story even if its underlying rationale is just magical, but I found the conclusion a letdown and elements of it morally vague.
Still, I’d be curious to read another weird western from Blackmore.
Additional Thoughts with Spoilers
It turns out this story is about family.
The train was cursed by a Chinese sorcerer for the mistreatment of the Chinese workers who bult the Spirals. He is looking for his daughter who, unknown to him, boarded the cursed train on the inaugural trip through the Spirals.
The train compels people, even after they get off it for a while, to board it again. But Jimmy avoids this and ends up back in time with the grandparents his dead mother always spoke kindly of.
Nathan’s journey is even stranger. He ends up reincarnated as the five-month-old baby of loving parents. Thematically, that makes sense given his frequent thoughts in the story about his mother and father.
The moral ambiguity comes in with the fate of the last man off the train, the one that doesn’t die or find himself with new family, Eli. He is taken off the train by a demonic figure and dragged away. I’m not certain why this treatment was reserved for him alone.
Finally, I think my less than enthusiastic review of Tales of Yog-Sothoth may have been because of lingering weariness with breakneck portal stories.