Devil’s Tower

While I slowly creep towards actually writing something new, you get more weird westerns.

Raw Feed (1997): Devil’s Tower, Mark Sumner, 1996.Devil's Tower

This book is labeled as an alternate history though the hinge the alternate timeline swings on – that the bloody Civil War unleashed magical energy that could be harnessed by the talented – is not sufficiently rationalistic to justify the label. Still, given the conceit, Sumner provides a fairly well worked West and America.

The Civil War still drags on with neither side having the will or resources to really pursue victory. The West is becoming rapidly depopulated through a combination of factors. The Civil War has played havoc with the money supply since both US and Confederate money circulates. With the rise of “talents”, various magical abilities possessed by a few (Sumner creates magic via words – “chanting”, magic “signing”, shapeshifting, prophecy – “casting”, the ability to conjure up beings of various material), towns fall prey to the talented – whether they are bandits or extortionist sheriffs that offer protection.

Sumner keeps the plot moving with lots of set pieces – the demon possessed Custer (at least he’s possessed by something) wipes out a gathering of Indians at Greasy Grass aka the Little Big Horn, protagonist Jake Bird battles a re-animated fossil dinosaur, a challenge between a Sheriff and an Indian shaman using conventional weapons and magic, and the dispatching of a spirit called up by a dying Indian medicine man at Greasy Grass and then gone rogue. Of course, part of the fun of alternate histories is having historical personages show up in recast roles. The possessed Custer is the arch-villain and fittingly enough he draws power from the worship and adoration of others. In fact, he originally possesses no talent, but his lust for power leads him to strike a bad deal with a spirit around Devil’s Tower. (The camp and climax around Devil’s Tower are pretty creepy as the bodies pile up.). William Quantrill shows up as an appropriately ruthless villain. Morgan Earp makes an appearance as an extortionist gun man.

The totally fictional characters are all good though Sumner seems a bit too careful in making sure that he has laudable Indian, black, and Hispanic characters. However, the West was full of different races and nationalities and that is too often forgotten. I liked Brad Smith the trader and ex-buffalo soldier. My main complaint is Sumner’s rather vague geography. I wasn’t exactly sure where Hatty lived – it seemed to be north of the South Dakota Badlands) and poorly evoked landscape. My main complaint of the latter is not only the sketchy trip through the Black Hills (though he did get the almost year around possibility of snow right) and side trip to a Deadwood deserted after Wild Bill Hickok’s murder but also his description of Devil’s Tower and the surrounding terrain. It was virtually unrecognizable. That is a rather humbling reminder of the difficulty of evoking places you’ve been to (and I’m sure Sumner’s visited those places) much less the ones you haven’t seen for yourself. As near as I can tell, Medicine Rock is, according to textual clues and Sumner’s acknowledgements, is where Gillette, Wyoming is.


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