I liked the fourth installment of the #Savant series enough, “A Manuscript Found in Carcosa” in Tales of the Al-Azif, that I decided to check out the first installment in the series. (The crosshatch in the series title makes sense in terms of the story, but I wonder if there also isn’t some Twitter marketing ploy at work.)
Review: In My Time of Dying, David J. West, 2019.
If my reviews of West’s work seem a bit short compared to others, it’s not just because his stories are in the novella or short novel range. It’s because they are well-done modern pulp, and part of the enjoyment of a good pulp story is usually the plot twists and turns and the set action pieces.
And there’s a lot to like here in terms of plot.
Our story opens not in the American West of 1875, where most of it takes place, but in the Himalayas in 1874. In a mountain fortress, a group called the Knights of St. Germain have a prisoner, and they’ve had him a long time. His name is John, an emaciated figure of skin and bones chained in a dungeon as he has been for many a decade. He is a sort of reservoir of lifeforce, constantly recharged by mysterious forces and then drained by Count St. Germain. Or, at least, that’s what he calls himself now. John knows him under his old name, Edward.
Certain readers will no doubt tumble on to whom these two men are, especially since our series heroine is Elizabeth Dee. But, for those who don’t, I won’t spoil West’s slow reveal.
John is a man of formidable resources, an ability to dominate wills, and he makes a break from the fortress – by flinging himself off its high walls.
The story then shifts to Elizabeth, an attractive, seemingly scholarly girl of 17 (she appears to be studying Mandarin) dominated by her drunken widower father. But she’s unwilling to let him tell her not to follow up on a mysterious offer, delivered by a Chinese messenger, to be the personal secretary of a “Mr. Methuselah, 007”. Said offer comes with a sack of gold coins and the instructions to seek out one Orrin Porter Rockwell – though not to mention that name in public.
And, on the way to meet Rockwell, Elizabeth finds herself ambushed by men whose threats contrast sharply with their elegant dress. They want to know about Methuselah’s message.
Elizabeth attempts to use her revolver on them fail miserably, but chopsticks can be a weapon.
Returning home in fear, she finds her home ablaze and her father dead. And, so, she goes looking for Rockwell.
The rest of the novel is the trio of Rockwell, Elizabeth, and Methuselah fleeing from California to Salt Lake City, pursued by the Knights. Since this is a steampunk story, we do get airships though air travel seems to be about the only steampunk technology here, and this America seems otherwise like that of our history.
I especially liked three things about this story.
First, Methuselah’s goal is an unusual one, a desire to accomplish something most people flee and dread, and much more interesting than the usual save-the-world thing.
Second, while I normally dislike stories with teenage protagonists, Elizabeth is not a wisecracking, insolent, implausibly wise youth. She seems, in many ways, a normal girl of the times. Though, of course, she does have magic in her blood.
Third, I appreciated all the historical cameos. Besides John and Edward and Rockwell, we get significant stage time with firearms genius John Browning and his brother. Black Bart the stagecoach robber shows up too. Nikola Tesla, Albert Pike, and Eliphas Levi, and Sam Brannan, a Mormon dissident the historical Rockwell dealt with, also get mentioned.