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Holly Messinger’s Debut Novel THE CURSE OF JACOB TRACY is a Well-Written and Genuinely Fun Weird Western


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the late 19th century American west, Trace, a reluctant psychic, and his partner Boz, perform a couple of odd, supernatural-related jobs for the mysterious recluse, Sabine Fairweather.

PROS: Engaging story; likable characters; evocative setting; thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
CONS: Sabine Fairweather’s long-range motives are never fully revealed.
BOTTOM LINE: Fun, fast-moving and leaves me wanting more.

Jacob Tracy sees dead people, or at least that’s how his psychic powers begin to manifest themselves when readers meet him in Holly Messinger’s engaging debut novel, The Curse of Jacob Tracy. Tracy (or Trace) can see and communicate with ghosts, a power he is not too keen on possessing, especially since that power was partly responsible for him losing his family and his priesthood. These days, he tends to avoid the well-populated areas (as many as could be found the late 19th century American west) making money with various gigs as trail guide and ranch hand. At his side is his trusted friend John Bosley (Boz), who always has Trace’s back despite being skeptical of his powers, at least until circumstances prove it to him, which they do in a big way.

In the Spring of 1880, Trace is contacted by a mysterious, wealthy recluse named Sabine Fairweather to retrieve an object that was bequeathed to her. This seemingly routine job holds more danger than expected and, it turns out, Ms. Fairweather knew about the danger in advance but did not warn him. Furthermore, Trace learns that Sabine secretly knew of his powers well before their meeting. Trace doesn’t like being manipulated — especially by someone being as as mysterious as Sabine — but rather than part ways, Sabine entices Trace by telling him that she can help him learn about his powers and possibly cure his psychic “curse”. Thus, Trace agrees to do a few more jobs for her, each one not only more dangerous than the last, but also unveiling a new aspect of Trace’s amazing abilities.

This is the framework on which The Curse of Jacob Tracy hangs, with each job being a complete adventure, yet also providing pieces to a longer, over-arching storyline of Trace discovering his powers. It’s an effective setup that gives the book an episodic feel, and no doubt one used to take advantage of the fact that at least some parts of the book have previously appeared in short story venues. (Actually, it was an immensely enjoyable short story called “End of the Line”, which makes up the first part of this novel, that introduced me to Trace and Boz and the wonderfully appealing weird west setting of the book…and immediately moved this novel to the top of my to-read pile.) To its credit, despite the short fiction beginnings, the story told throughout the novel is incredibly cohesive. It’s not just multiple stories slapped together; there’s connecting tissue that bolsters the longer story arcs and fleshes out the characters and events in ways that make it seem like a novel-length story was planned from the get-go.

What’s particularly pleasing about the novel is, for lack of a better word, the flavor. The Weird West setting is appealing to me in ways that neither westerns nor urban fantasy could do independently. One of the things I like about literature is what it teaches me about myself, and this book taught me (once again) that any sub-genre can be enjoyed if it’s written well, and The Curse of Jacob Tracy is very well written. The story is swift-moving and engaging, it portrays characters that are realistic and likable, and the language just flows. The prose is quite evocative of westerns in a “you are there” kind of way. I must admit to seeing similarities between Messinger’s Trace and Boz characters and Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard: two friends (one white, one black) who are likable, down-to-earth people who speak with a Southern drawl and whose adventures are page-turning fun.

In Messinger’s case, though, there’s a strong supernatural element as well as a generous sprinkling of horror elements. Trace and Boz essentially encounter ghosts, demons, vampires, and werewolves as they perform their odd jobs. Again, this is not my usual reading stomping ground, and this book had me asking myself why. On top of that, the story introduces additional characters that add depth to the story. Besides Sabine and her shady motivations, there’s a nefarious fellow named Mereck who, by way of his minions, also seems to want something from Trace. Trace and Boz also encounter other people with special abilities; some friendly, others not so much. And on top of that, Messinger teases along Sabine’s ulterior motives and grander schemes just waiting behind the curtains. I don’t know that that those motivations were ever fully answered here in this volume, but by story’s end, you not only know this is only the beginning to a beautifully uncomfortable adventure-filled relationship, you can’t wait to see where it will go next.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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