It's an Old West that never existed except in the imagination. It began with dead men stirring at the Battle of Shiloh, and, since then, the land has bristled with lethal magic. Here and now, in a post-Civil War America, taking on the office of Sheriff in the rugged frontier not only means upholding the laws of men but also being the first and last line of defense against the supernatural forces which threaten the town. Few Sheriffs last for long.
Mark Sumner continues his peculiar but addictive western fantasy series with DEVIL'S ENGINE, the explosive sequel to Devil's Tower. To recap a bit: DEVIL'S TOWER told the story of how Jake Bird came into his own powers and eventually became Sheriff of Medicine Rock. As DEVIL'S ENGINE opens up, Jake Bird has been Sheriff for around five years now, with his beautiful, fearless wife Josie acting as his deputy. Five years since his faceoff with the dark sorcerer General Custer, enough time for Jake to master his prodigious talent of chattering, although his talent for clarity (what amounts to super-accurate hunches) seems to have deserted him years ago. So, life has been hard, but Medicine Rock and its sheriff have survived, if not exactly flourished. Then, one day, word comes down that an influential New Yorker is planning to run a transcontinental railroad, from New York to San Francisco, with Medicine Rock as a key railway station.
For the struggling town of Medicine Rock, it's a sure-fire path to growth and prosperity. But if it all seems too good to be true, well, it is. There's a catch, and it's a nasty one, as the railroad is tied into a scheme to plunder the Old West of its magic. But Sheriff Bird is unawares of this and decides to travel to New York to further look into the railway deal, which leaves Medicine Rock suddenly vulnerable to sorcerous attacks...
There, so much for the main storyline. You know, as good as DEVIL'S TOWER was, it turns out DEVIL'S ENGINE is even better. The scope is larger. It's just as imaginative, atmospheric, and exhilarating, and it moves like the blazes. A hell of a read, this was. Mark Sumner knows how to keep his readers on the edge of their seats. He piles on the tension and the craftings and hexes and the magical faceoffs, which are thunderous and wild. Jake is simply awesome as the big hero, but his wife Josie may even be more impressive. Josie, unlike Jake, doesn't have any talent to speak of. What she has, instead, is a fearlessness to her. And a big friggin' eight-gauge shotgun.
Sumner expands his world building beyond the wild west to include the eastern seaboard, specifically New York. We soon learn that magic isn't restricted to the wild west alone and, in fact, has greatly impacted the more civilized populations. In the East the advent of talents has given rise to protection societies (read: protection rackets). Jay Gould, head of one of the biggest protection societies in New York, is the one behind the railway plot. Gould, no surprise, is the main bad guy, although his head engineer Mr. Kastle is himself a nasty sort. It's magic versus technology as Gould and Kastle have managed to come up with mechanical gadgets which could nullify and even capture magic. So Jake and friends have got their work cut out.
Unlike DEVIL'S TOWER, in which one story arc dominated, Sumner tracks a trio of plot threads here. Certain chapters devote themselves to the main protagonist, Jake Bird, as he confronts the unsavory and unnatural nature of the rails, and gets himself all beat up in the process. The book also keeps tabs on the enigmatic and snippy Rainmaker, who more or less controls his local weather, even if he does have a rain cloud forever hovering over him. The Rainmaker dwells and travels in a horseless, wind-propelled wagon that sails across the land, and he makes his living by creating precipitation for those suffering a drought. He's not a likable dude. The third arc follows the folks back at Medicine Rock, as a new talented Sheriff takes over in Jake's absence. You think Josie'll put up with that? Damn right, she wouldn't. The bullets will fly!
For those who've read DEVIL'S TOWER, old favorites show up. There's Jake and Josie, naturally. Then there's Jake's reliable old friend and shapechanger Bred Smith, who's still prone to wanderlust. And Sienna Truth (how cool is her name?), the beautiful, quiet Indian girl who can see into the future. But Sumner also introduces several new and intriguing characters, who all end up helping Jake. The Rainmaker has already been mentioned. But Buffalo Bill Cody is also here, who signs on as a scout for the railroad venture and comes to dearly regret it.
But my favorite new character is Boots, someone I wished Sumner had featured a hell of a lot more in this book. Boots possesses a singular talent, one she has no control over. Her life isn't sketched out in a straightforward temporal line; sometimes it diverges into a loop, enabling her to travel back (and I'm assuming, forward) in time. In a span of days, the other characters in the book encounter Boots at different stages in her life, from when she was a young girl up to when she was old. It's obvious that Sumner had further plans for her, as well as for the crippled doctor lately arrived to Medicine Rock (there's a mystery there).
But here's what sucks. DEVIL'S TOWER and DEVIL'S ENGINE were projected to be the first two installments in a proposed trilogy, before poor sales of DEVIL'S ENGINE killed that noise. Now it looks more and more like we'll never know what happened to Jake, Josie, Goldie, Bred Smith, Boots, and Sienna Truth, and the other folks up at Medicine Rock. It's a damn pity that no one was in the mood for DEVIL'S ENGINE when it was first published. Because, re-reading these two books now, I can't help but crave for more of their fantastic western folklore/gothic fantasy ilk.
I guess I could brush up again on my Alvin Maker books. Or finally dust off Emma Bull's Territory, which had been sitting on my shelf for months now. But it just won't be the same.