Brings the Lightning: Book Review
I feel bad trashing Peter Grant’s first Western. From his blog he seems like an interesting and open minded man and, from the little that I’ve followed the puppies battles in science fiction, he appears to be a voice of reason. Unfortunately, I’ve made peace with the fact that my favorite pieces of fiction were written by people whose editorial writing makes my cringe, while my favorite non-fiction writers and bloggers often write fiction that I have a hard time being charitable too.
Brings the Lightning is not an evil book, or a stunningly offensive one, but a thoroughly mediocre piece of plodding writing. A western novel that’s the equivalent of your boring uncle’s slide show of the vacation he took in Yellowstone, complete with a description of the tourist visitor center. It’s a novel devoid of two qualities that are essential in any story about the Wild West, an overwhelming sense of place, and an ear for specific characters. It feels like mocking the kid who worked really hard to turn in a C+ paper on history and is beaming with pride. Events happen at one point in history that should be exciting but are described with all the flair of a corporate stock report.
I purchased a paperback copy from Amazon when I was buying new shorts because I thought I’d give the offerings of Castalia House a shot, but this is the kind of lifeless fan fiction work that makes me wonder. I can forgive a plodding narrative with cardboard stock characters and a tin ear for dialogue in Jerry Pournelle or David Brin science fiction story where there’s either a fascinating mystery to solve, a fictional world to explore or even gawking at some far out concept. But the Western is all about character, place and tense moments where hard men see who’ll lose his cool first.
This is a genre that gave the world the loquacious characters: Rooster Cogburn, Doc Holiday, William Munny and Butch Cassidy. It created an entire world full of character archetypes; the crazy old coot, the fire and brimstone preacher, old school marm, the old cowpoke, the failed settler, the ruthless bounty hunter. They speak in a combination of hard scrabble aphorism, Biblical imagery, and homespun wisdom from endless days on the saddle, alone with your thoughts.
Former Reb, Walter Ames returns to his family farm in Tennessee with a pocket full of gold he took from raiders, but there’s no future for him in home so he ventures out West. With a new wife and two black stewards he picks up in St. Louis. Along the way they battle outlaws, Indians and weather.
‘Brings the Lightning’ features characters as vivid as the folks at the accounting office’s Halloween party who all speak the straight forward manner of a corporate sales rep if customer service existed after the Civil War. Dialogue features everyone, from a widowed homesteader to an old man who thought he lost both sons speaking in eerily similar voices in constructive dialogue that follows the same pattern.
‘I figure we should go east to avoid the Injuns’
‘That’ll be a good idea, we don’t want to get raided in the middle of the night’
‘Yeah, the Injuns are raiding wagon trains to the south’
‘Yeah, besides, the terrain is rougher in the south’
Whether it’s an old man realizing that a son he thought dead is still alive or a people discussing how many rounds of ammo to buy for a trip out west, they speak with the same generic declarations of intent. Except for the two black sidekicks whose defining character traits are being black and talking in old timey black accents out of Gone with the Wind. We learn nothing else about them, even in passing, even implied but never spoken aloud.
We get no moments of reflection over the war, no insane stories from Walter’s time as a cavalry scout, no thoughts about the Rebel cause. None of the characters appear to be fleeing anything, they have no dreams. Walter Ames is a protagonist defined by competence with guns and logistics, in passages that read more like fan fiction than serious literature. Walter Ames always has the right answer for whatever problem is thrown his way and the right piece of advice to give. I don't necessarily have a problem with heroic characters. Lee Child regularly gets away with Jack Reacher, a character who veers close to being a Mary Sue, but he gets away with it because Lee Child is a far better writer than Peter Grant with a solid ear for dialogue, a firm handle on describing places and a flair for sliding exposition and trivia in his stories.
Brings the Lightning features guns a lot but it fails even as gun porn. The passages discussing the differences between different types of revolvers and repeating rifles read like a manufacturer’s instruction manual in dialogue form. Ames’s discovery of quick draw holsters on a dead raider could be a moment Grant to go on about the history of gun holsters, or for Ames to ponder a future of always having to be ready to draw his pistols in his new life. Instead, he just ponders the holster and gets one of his own.
It’s a shame, because there’s fascinating story buried in this book that only needs a better wordsmith to bring out. The idea of a young cavalry scout who found that the life appealed to him with the weight of the ‘Lost Cause’ on him, who encounters the remnants of the guerrilla fighting in Kansas could be a nightmarishly tense story about the thin strands of civilization, or a meditation on fleeing a defeated place. It could feature characters trying to outrun a past they'd rather forget, or on a desperate search for redemption or their own heroic narrative. I could about clash of civilizations. It could be comic or a story about morals featuring the kind of fire and brimstone theology that fits better in a Western setting than in most other genres, a true tale of good, evil and redemption.
Perhaps this book just isn’t my cup of tea. The positive reviews on Amazon have me bewildered if we both read the same work of fiction. If you appreciate period accuracy and stories about sober minded people taking the most rational course of action, you’ll probably enjoy Peter Grant’s book.
But not if you’re looking for a piece of fiction that transports you to another world...