BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gunslinger Tashndelu Sand seeks revenge on the last of the posse that raped and killed her mother.
PROS: Strong female lead, inversion of tropes, gunslinging action, psychotic cyborg horse.
CONS: Confusing spatial relationships, minor plot choices.
BOTTOM LINE: A provocative twist on the revenge western.
A. G. Carpenter blends the revenge western with science fiction in the novella Brass Stars, recently released by Eggplant Literary Productions. On a distant planet, a half-breed gunslinger has come to kill the last of twelve men who raped and killed her mother. Tashndelu is an angel of vengeance, though her quarry Brannigan’s control of the town of Paradise makes it unlikely that she will ever be able to kill him before being gunned down herself. However, with the aid of an old man, an impetuous lover, and a psychotic cyborg horse, she might just find natural justice.
Carpenter’s story is mostly western with a dash of science fiction. Anyone who has ever watched old Clint Eastwood movies will recognize in Tashndelu the hard-bitten stone-cold outsider that Eastwood played so well. (Unforgiven or Few or a Few Dollars More come to mind.) Carpenter establishes Tashnedelu’s character through her use of “unladylike” language, her ability to use men for sexual gratification without emotional attachment, and her sardonic wit. What traditional femininity Tashndelu may have had has been sublimated to her need for revenge. She is not a readily likable character, though readers will certainly cheer, at least in part, her need for eye-for-an-eye justice.
Yet the wall that Tashndelu has built is not unassailable. Carpenter introduces male characters into Tashndelu’s life that lead her to question, momentarily, her choices. In this way, Carpenter reverses the traditional “cowboy” stereotypes. Tashndelu has the “masculine” role, whereas the male characters are either sexual objects or pacifist wimps – the customary role played by women in classic westerns. I really enjoyed this subversion of the typical western types. It added spice to an archetypal revenge narrative.
There is plenty of gunslinging action for those readers hoping for that. Tashndelu is handy with her six-shooters and is certainly not afraid to use them. She deals death quickly, efficiently and without remorse. If you like your heroes as amoral as your villains, Tashndelu is your woman.
Carpenter struggles a bit with rendering into text the spatial relationships between characters and objects. For example, at the inn where Tashndelu stays (and enjoys a night in the sack with a prostitute) I was not always clear about who or what was upstairs or down. When Tashndelu was attacked I was not sure if she was shooting down the hallway, down the stairs, or was already in the inn’s common room when the attack took place. However, I understand that the novella went through a rewrite after the ARC I was provided for review, and so these issues may have been addressed.
What Carpenter does well, and what makes this book worth reading, is capture the internal battle over the morality of summary justice. Though Tashndelu has already killed eleven men, when her revenge motive is questioned, she still pauses to think. However, I think her final decision makes the most sense, and Carpenter is careful not to violate the characterization she built.
There is also an exciting surprise finish that Carpenter hints at throughout the story but which only a savvy reader will identify early. I would definitely like to see more stories from Carpenter incorporating the idea of the psychotic cyborg horse – a clever twist on the boon companion archetype. After all, how “boon” can your companion be when every nerve in his brain screams for him to kill you?
Fans of Firefly may enjoy this science fiction western, though don’t expect Browncoat-style humor. Little of Brass Stars turns on the science fiction, focusing primarily, as revenge westerns often did, on the broody characters and spare setting and is therefore much darker than a Firefly or Mike Resnick’s Weird West series. What the science fiction envelope of the story does is allow Carpenter to reenter the myth of the Wild West. Carpenter has reinvented the strong, silent, brooding type in the form of a woman, a provocative twist on the classic revenge story.