I’ve always wanted to start a review that way. Concerning Mike Resnick’s sequel to his steampunked shootout at the OK Corral, I can say with utter confidence that whatever you felt about the first book, you will feel again with the second, perhaps more intensely.
If you are like me, the tag line should read, “If you found The Buntline Special merely tolerable, then avoid The Doctor and the Kid altogether.” But I realize that not all readers will share my experience of Resnick’s steampunk western, and in the interest of being fair, I can readily admit that those who liked the first and wanted more, will get exactly what they wanted in this second installment.
Admittedly, Mike Resnick had his work cut out for him when I read the Buntline Express, his first steampunk Doc Holliday novel. I had high expectations based on Resnick’s pedigree and Seamus Gallagher’s great artwork. But while the artwork stood up, the writing left me cold in everything save the snappy patter between Holliday and the undead Johnny Ringo. With the sequel, the Doctor and the Kid, my expectations were considerably lower. Furthermore, I lacked the strong familiarity with the story of Billy the Kid that I possessed of the OK Corral.
The opening chapters did nothing to change my expectations, which is sad, given how low I had adjusted my expectations. The first eight chapters, effectively summarized on the back cover, became merely a long, drawn out reiteration rescued only by Doc’s dialogue. Aside from the gunslinger’s witty repartee, the opening chapters offer little in the way of a hook, and one can’t help wonder whether this book would have seen the light of day without Resnick’s name attached to it. Since it’s no spoiler, being on the back cover, here’s the synopsis of those opening chapters.
Doc is convalescing at a “luxurious facility that specializes in his disease” when he drunkenly gambles away his savings, which was to pay for his ongoing treatment; he consequently sets out in pursuit of Billy the Kid, whose reward will sufficiently replenish Doc’s lost money.
Had I been Resnick’s editor, I would have recommended beginning the story with Doc waking up drunk and penniless. Don’t waste time coasting up to that moment. Go straight to it: if in media res was good enough for Homer, then it should be good enough for a five time Hugo winner.
From that point, the plot moves through the same essential points as the first book, summed up as Gunslingers and Geniuses: Doc meets famous gunslinger, who is nigh indestructible because he is undead/protected-by-magic. Doc and gunslinger hit it off, mildly complicating the inevitable showdown. Meanwhile, Doc’s genius compatriots solve whatever problem Native American magic poses in this installment.
Some may argue I’m demanding too much of the Doctor and the Kid: it’s clearly intended to be a light hearted romp, so why can’t I just let it be that? It’s possible Resnick’s not my brand of writer, and I’ll admit I went in with a low horizon of expectations, but ultimately, the book’s greatest flaw is the same as the first book’s: cog-on-a-stick steampunk. I don’t mind a fun adventure without overstated social commentary or deeper themes. I’m an ardent fanboy of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. However, despite being paranormal romance and humor, two categories that might belie the need for worldbuilding, Carriger’s world feels complete. Resnick’s steampunk western series reads like a standard western with technofantasy slapped on top. Gunslinger, Genius, Gadgets, Repeat.
Even Seamus Gallagher’s artwork is weaker this time around: while the cover is up to expectation, the interior illustrations are hastily inked, lacking the cleanly defined lines of most of Gallagher’s work. The only way I could recommend The Doctor and the Kid is to people doing research on stereotypes in science fiction, where as usual, the White Man has technology and the First Nations have magic (that’s what the geniuses are up to, by the way, finding out how to defeat the First Nations’ magic so they can defeat them and settle the West). Again, the lack of worldbuilding makes the magic feel tacked on, instead of woven in, as in Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet.
That said, if you have no familiarity with the history of Billy the Kid, aren’t interested in cohesive alternate histories, or just want some witty repartee from Doc Holliday packing steampunk armaments, then The Doctor and the Kid might be just the thing for you. I could easily see aficinados of classic westerns who are steampunk-curious enjoying either of Resnick’s books. So if you’re a fan of Doc Holliday or Billy the Kid, or have just always wished for that showdown, The Doctor and the Kid is likely your huckleberry.
Mike Perschon is a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, a doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and on the English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.