When federal Peacemaker Caleb Marcus and his whiskey-drinking jackalope familiar ride into the tiny frontier town of Hope on their mechanical horse, they’re looking for a brief stopover on an otherwise boring circuit. What they find is, of course, all manners of trouble.
There’s the constant threat of Native American raids. There’s the mysterious and ominous Abel Warner, whose nearby ranch is almost another settlement in its own right. There’s the ongoing mystery of why local kids are turning up scoured of their innate magical powers. And there’s an odd vibe in the air, like something’s definitely not right. And as a Peacemaker, it’s Caleb’s job to investigate and make right.
Naturally, as these things go, it gets messy in a hurry. Before Caleb’s through, he’ll have risked his life time and again, faced his traumatic past, and waged war against an implacable foe. All in the line of duty.
In Peacemaker, first of a new series, K.A. Stewart (better known for her Jesse James Dawson urban fantasy series) takes all of the traditional Western tropes, and feeds them into a blender along with magic, steampunk, and alternate history. The end result is a fast-paced, wholly entertaining adventure that feels incredibly familiar yet with different trappings. She’s taken the very essence of some of the most commonly used elements from your classic Western movies and books, and given them a magic-enhanced makeover. In fact, on Frank Gruber’s list of the seven Western plots, this is pretty much #7: the marshal story. Lawman comes to town, mayhem ensues.
Reading this book was like hitting highlights from several urban fantasy series also. Caleb’s scars—emotional and physical—and relative lack of magical power as a result, remind me of Mark del Franco’s Conner Grey. His innate toughness, stubbornness, and willingness to do the right thing at any cost is as much a hardboiled trait as a cowboy characteristic, evoking Harry Dresden and Stewart’s own Jesse Dawson to name two. The talking jackalope with a thing for whiskey…okay, you got me there. But even then, talking animal sidekicks aren’t entirely unknown.
So the setting and plot are fairly standard in their own way. The hero is a familiar archetype. The villain is a classic. What’s so special about this book? Well, it’s a lot of fun, with great pacing, evocative action sequences, and it avoids many of the pitfalls that you might have expected from something of its kind. For one, there’s a complete lack of romance. Caleb is a gentleman who respects women, and while he does run into the requisite schoolmarm and several Native American women, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in pursuing any affairs. It’s nice to see a story where romantic entanglements aren’t on the menu.
Secondly, and this is important, Stewart makes sure to treat the Native Americans with respect in their portrayal. They’re shown to be spiritual, even powerful in a different manner, definitely mysterious…but also just people who have been given a hard time and oppressed by the advance of the white folks. They’re not demonized, or made out to be exotic and untouchable, they’re not objects of desire, and they contribute significantly to the plot. Yes, there is a character who might be described as “the magical Indian,” I will admit. But he’s clearly running his own agenda and is in no way subservient to Caleb. It’s tricky, trying to play with specific archetypes while avoiding the stereotypes and appropriation. I think Stewart recognizes the inherent danger and does her best to steer clear of real problems.
I loved Peacemaker. It’s an entertaining story with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, it suffers from its own self-familiarity. By that, I mean that there’s very little need or opportunity for exposition regarding the larger nature of the setting. We’re treated to bits and pieces of history and context, but Stewart doesn’t go into a lot of extraneous detail, so it’s anyone’s guess how far from our world things have deviated, how pervasive magic and “arcanotech” really are, and so on. Much can be inferred from context, but I’d love to get a better grounding in a world where apparently everyone has magical talent to some degree (those without it, the scoured, are generally shunned and mistreated) and they’ve incorporated it into various kinds of technology. It’s a form of tunnel vision, when the main character is used to his world and never has to explain about the things everyone takes for granted, yet which might fascinate the reader.
Furthermore, Peacemaker also suffers from the overly familiar plot. As noted, Stewart seems to deliberately evoke classic tropes, and so it feels like we’ve seen this before a thousand times. All you need is the bad guy tying a lady to the railroad tracks before foreclosing on the ranch, and you’d be all set.
This book holds up well under scrutiny and definitely offers an enjoyable story in the underutilized “Western fantasy” subgenre, accessible to the casual reader. But it almost feels as though Stewart is playing it safe; Cherie Priest and Devon Monk, among others, have explored similar themes with their own take on the Wild West mash-up, but their efforts push the boundaries, whereas this is mainly a Western with a funny hat.
Still, I can’t wait for the next in the series. Because I’m a sucker for the classics, an easy touch for popcorn reading, and I’m a fan of jackalopes.
Peacemaker is available now from InterMix (ebook only)
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.