The Queen of Swords by R.S. Belcher
R.S. Belcher’s first two Weird West books set in Golgotha, Nevada (The Six-Gun Tarot and The Shotgun Arcana) were hot mess cacophonies of fantasy tropes, characters, source elements, and the like — huge Sunday brunch all-you-can-eat buffets where lifting a lid off of one of those big metal serving bins might reveal zombies, bat-people, cannibals, a primal evil, primal evil’s minions, Mormon artifacts, mythos from just about anywhere or anywhen, martial-arts-wielding female assassins, a hundreds of years old pirate called “Gran,” and more. Lots more. Neither book should have worked, and yet both did, skating just on the edge of narrative confusion and disaster while offering up an energetic funhouse ride of pure exuberance. Belcher is back with a third book in this world, The Queen of Swords (2017), and while it has its moments, it’s unfortunately less successful than its predecessors in navigating that narrow path, leading to an overall disappointing reading experience.
The Queen of Swords moves the action from Golgotha in both time and place thanks to a dual-storyline structure. One follows Maude Stapleton (that female assassin) in late 1800’s Charleston as she tries to win back custody of her daughter Constance and control of her inheritance from her “you’re a bad mother and women can’t do finances” father. She not only has to fight her father in court, but another party is also interested in her daughter (for less well-intentioned purposes) — a group of fellow Daughter of Lilith assassins who see Constance as the linchpin to an obscure prophecy. Also in the mix are “The Sons of Typhon,” a group of physically warped/enhanced men opposed to the Daughters and in service to a primal evil they call “The Father.” Meanwhile, we get the backstory of pirate/treasure seeker Anne Bonney, Maude’s many-times Great Grandmother who trained her to be a Daughter. This storyline is set in Africa in the early 1700s and follows Anne as she makes her way to a fabled city of bones in the unexplored middle of the continent. Eventually, the two stories mesh thanks to some funky space-time disturbances.
As with its predecessors, The Queen of Swords overflows with creativity: evil minions with crab claws for hands, a pirate ship constructed of magical sentient trees, a Secret Sea connected to most bodies of water on the planet and only accessible by gates associated with the rising and setting sun or the moon, a statue that cries tears of rubies, a magic map, and several throwaway references via letters to the usual weird events back in Golgotha (undead bandits, giant monsters, truth curses). Some of these were more successful than others, mostly because I either wished we’d lingered more with several or because some felt more plot device (a matter of convenience) than an integral, organic part of the story.
Shifts between the two storylines are smooth, and the alternating plots added somewhat to the suspense at various points. And there are several nice parallels between events and themes, such as between the paternalism and brutal colonialism/slavery in Africa and the casual racism and condescension towards and legal restrictions on women in latter day Charleston. But the plots themselves didn’t engage me much. The court case felt overly drawn out and detailed, ended I thought both anti-climactically and somewhat cheaply, and felt less interested in storytelling and more in hitting the easy target of benighted Southern “tradition.” Meanwhile, Anne’s episodic travails in Africa also didn’t do much for me, feeling muddled, arbitrary, and lacking in suspense as, if you’ve read the first two, you pretty much know the general outcome.
Both Maude and Anne are strong female characters as one might expect as they carry the narrative weight, but women dominate throughout even amongst the secondary characters, which include an “Amazon” commander and the sharp out-of-state lawyer Maude hires to argue her custody case. Maude’s father Martin could have been painted as a simple cartoon figure as Maude’s mundane world adversary, but Belcher shows him — with admittedly mixed effectiveness, but I valued the attempt — as a more complicated character than seen at first.
On the flip side, the female characters were actually too strong for me. I’m not a fan in general of nearly invulnerable characters, or those who can defy physics and biology with ease and aplomb (there’s a reason I found Superman incredibly dull). As much as Maude may argue what she does is “training” not “magic,” for all intents and purposes it’s pretty much, yep, magic. And when she, or others, do take damage, which happens relatively regularly, the damage never lasts long, reminding me of old D and D sessions where after a battle someone’s character would just pull out their endless bag of healing potions while another started working with their limitless-charge staff of resurrection. The fight scenes were also a bit too detailed and lengthy for me, though one’s mileage will vary there, I’m sure. As for the villains, they never came alive for me, either the Big Bad primal evil or the Lesser Bad Daughter of Lilith.
My reaction throughout reading, thanks to aspects both large and small, was that the whole book felt rushed a bit, with some interior contradictions, unclear motivations, muddy mythologies, characters switching tone or attitude too quickly, abrupt scenes, too-easy explanations for things, and other such niggling issues.
I think I would have been disappointed in this book in any case, but both Anne and Maude were so great in the earlier books that the contrast here probably exacerbated my negative response somewhat, though it’s hard to separate that out. It does appear that we’ll be returning to Golgotha in another book, and despite my reaction to The Queen of Swords, I’m still looking forward to that possibility, with hopes that book four is more of a return to form.