BOOK REVIEW: Brass Stars by A.G. Carpenter

REVIEW SUMMARY: Revenge Western wrapped in a science fiction envelope.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gunslinger Tashndelu Sand seeks revenge on the last of the posse that raped and killed her mother.

MY REVIEW:
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.

4 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Brass Stars by A.G. Carpenter”

  1. I’m noticing more and more that people who read printed books are reading very different things than the folks that are using e-readers.

    I’m a huge reader. 200 books or more every year. I keep a pretty close eye on upcoming print releases.

    But I see the genre bloggers more and more often posting reviews on e-reads I’ve never heard of, or viewed listed on Amazon, etc. Then notice on Goodreads that hundreds or thousands of readers have posted reviews on these stealthy e-books.

    I realize that Goodreads mostly serves young adult female readers and I don’t fit in that category. So, it’s not just that.

    On another note in the changing world of publishing. Hardcover books prices are swiftly creeping up and up.

    1. The explosion in self-publishing, mostly in only e-book form, means that there are a lot — a LOT — of works available now that would have been difficult to produce and market just a few years ago.

      (Factors: Increasing sales of e-book readers and apps; e-book production now possible at small expense and a reasonable learning curve; Amazon and other merchanting sites now willing to list most self-published works.)

      This sometimes means that gems that might have had a difficult time competing in an overcrowded traditional market can now be discovered. (Sam Torode’s THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE was one of my favorite reads this year.) But it also sometimes means that trying to find those gems in the first place can be a lot like reading thru a slush pile.

      1. Bruce, Are you an e-reader user? How do you find good self-published books?

        I’m a traditional printed book reader. So finding e-books all a bit mysterious to me.

        Do you think printed book readers and e-book readers are reading very different books?

        1. I use my smartphone for reading ebooks, with apps for Nook and Kindle. I also use Overdrive to borrow ebooks from my local library. The smartphone screen is close enough to a paperback size that I don’t have trouble reading off it; other people find it difficult.

          This is a habit I’ve only picked up in the last couple of years, but I find myself reading a lot more ebooks than hardcopy books nowadays.

          Finding good self-published books: Sometimes a struggle. Easiest way is to keep an eye on experienced writers who are, more and more, bringing out their rights-reverted backlist as ebooks. (Walter Jon Williams, one of my favorite writers, has brought out most of his backlist as ebooks, including the non-sf nautical adventure novels from the start of his career.) You can catch up on a lot of older books this way, and the numbers are increasing.

          Sorting thru new self-published works is a lot harder.

          Ratings on Amazon and Goodreads are generally useless. Even the most awful books get mostly four or five stars. I think the psychology behind this is that giving three stars or less makes you a meanie, and people don’t want to be seen as a meanie.

          Actual Amazon/Goodreads reviews are a little better, but not by much. Too many of the reviews fall into the same four-or-five-stars mental trap, and give gushing approval for writing that clearly doesn’t deserve it. I find it actually better to read the three-star reviews, when there are any; they tend to give a much more realistic idea what one can expect to find in a book.

          There are a number of ongoing attempts to establish websites devoted to legitimate and intelligent reviews of self-published books, but none of them seem to have really gained a reputation or foothold yet.

          On my own blog, I write an occasional column, “The Brave Free Books”, with reviews of mostly-ebooks that I’ve gotten for free from author’s promotions, drawings, or other sources. I tend to follow a “toughlove” model of reviewing, so some books get high marks (the Sam Torode novel I mentioned earlier, for one), while others… don’t (but get a lengthy explanation why their work was sub-par). Also, I’m a meanie.

          Amazon’s “Look Inside”, and similar features elsewhere, is your biggest friend in the search for good self-published books. Being able to read a sample has saved me time and disappointment on multiple occasions.

          Other things to look at are the covers and marketing blurbs. If a blurb is poorly written or boring, the book probably will be too. (Another recent post on my blog dealt with writing blurbs, and why some failed and others succeeded in piquing my interest.)

          A decently designed cover is a promising sign. If a writer is willing to take the time and effort to make the packaging presentable and professional, it may mean they also took the time and effort to make the book’s content worthwhile as well. (This doesn’t always prove true. One of the fantasy books I reviewed had a spectacularly good cover, but I was only able to read three chapters before giving up on the effort.)

          I wasn’t being facetious when I described looking for good self-published works as being like looking thru a slushpile. Both follow a similar bell curve: On one end, there’s a fairly small (but memorable) amount of the extremely awful my-god-what-were-they-thinking flat out BAD books. Then there’s a big climb up a hill of Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time books, with clear problems in structure, plotting, characterization etc, books that needed a rethink or rewrite before they should have been published. Then the other half of that big hill, the As-Good-As books, works that are “competent”, that are “okay”, but that don’t have a distinctive voice, don’t do anything new or fresh, that are essentially imitative, and that in the end can best be categorized as “meh”. And finally the other small end of that bell curve, where the books are satisfying, well-crafted, and memorable.

          Does this help?

          (I’ll probably put a version of this comment on my blog as its own post.)

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