Deadlands: Boneyard by Seanan McGuire (book review).

While the novelisation of a film makes sense, especially as some viewers like to have a record, particularly of the dialogue. Admittedly this was more relevant when it wasn’t possible to own the film on DVD. Shared worlds, too, have value. An author may not have the time or energy to explore all the characters and possible events that the fans would like to see. It is unsurprising that comparatively minor characters catch the imagination and inviting others into the franchise provides a larger base for the readership. Role playing games are another entity altogether.

Many fantasy readers will be familiar with the ‘Warhammer’ series, both the game itself and the novels set in that universe. How big the crossover between the readers and the game players can only be speculation. More recently, ‘Deadlands’ has appeared as an RPG set in the ‘weird west’, a combination of pioneering western and fantasy/horror with a smattering of steampunk. (This has no connection with Mike Resnick’s ‘Weird West’ novels which have some elements in common with the game.) For those who can be enticed away from their computers to venture into the realm of the written word, there are now three novels, of which Seanan McGuire’s is the third.

Anyone worried that they have no knowledge of the RPG or the motifs it encompasses have no need to worry. McGuire is a skilful writer and uses the themes of the original RPG bible to good effect, almost as if this was an original novel with no outside connections. Anyone who is involved with this particular game will, though, recognise the tropes.

The main character is Annie Pearl. She is the keeper of oddities in a travelling circus. Most of her oddities are dangerous, like the nibblers, fish that can strip meat to the bone in seconds, or the pit wasp, whose sting is lethal. With her are her mute daughter, Adeline, and a lynx, Tranquility. Like many of the others who belong to the circus, she was absorbed by the owner, Nathanial Blackstone. He never turned away anyone who was in need, but each had to make their place in the circus. As the travelling season draws to a close, Nathanial decides to head for one last venue, a town in the forests of Oregon called The Clearing.

On arrival, the mayor of the town tries to make them move on, but Nathanial is prepared to risk potential bad weather to earn enough to see them through the oncoming winter. The mayor warns them not to let children go into the woods. Adeline, though, is persuaded to venture in by a group of town boys. Annie knows that she must find her daughter, as this is a forest where monsters live.

The steampunk elements are explained in the interludes which take the action to Salt Lake City, the place Annie grew up and fled from. Her husband is a scientist who considers Annie and Adeline as his property and wants them back. His mode of transport, when he learns they are with the circus at The Clearing, is by steam-powered carriage.

The ‘boneyard’ of the title is a reference to the area within the circus where the members set up their wagons and tents while they are stationary. Enclosed, it gives them privacy when customers are on the site viewing the attractions. McGuire has usefully transferred the knowledge she gathered when writing one of her earlier books, ‘Magic For Nothing’, where another Annie works at a circus.

Worth a mention are the wood-cut-like interior illustrations by Steve Ellis.

While this book is thoroughly enjoyable, I’m not sure that I’d invest time in other ‘Deadlands’ novels by other authors.

Pauline Morgan

December 2018

(pub: TOR, 2017. 332 page paperback. Price: $16.99 ((US), $23.99 (CAN). £12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7653-7530-8)

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