Peacemaker, the first of a series of SFF Western novels written by Australian author Marianne De Pierres, was a truly fascinating blend of genres. A fairly typical Western story in terms of plot, Peacemaker weaves science fiction elements with spirituality, crime, and urban fantasy into something much greater than the sum of its parts. A great debut for a world and set of characters that I can’t wait to see more from!
Virgin Jackson is the senior ranger in Birrimun Park – the world’s last natural landscape, overshadowed though it is by a sprawling coastal megacity. She maintains public safety and order in the park, but her bosses have brought out a hotshot cowboy to help her catch some drug runners who are affecting tourism. She senses the company is holding something back from her, and she’s not keen on working with an outsider like Nate Sixkiller.
When an imaginary animal from her troubled teenage years reappears, Virgin takes it to mean one of two things: a breakdown (hers!) or a warning. When the dead bodies start piling up around her and Nate, she decides on the latter. Something terrible is about to happen in the park and Virgin and her new partner are standing in its path…
The first thing that jumped out at me as I was reading through Peacemaker was how fantastic a character Virgin is. Most female characters in westerns tend to be reduced to their choice of femme fatale, swooning hostage, or strumpet. Rarely do we get to see them in a leading role, and rarely are they so well developed and interesting as Virgin Jackson. It’s something I’ve mentioned in other reviews, but it is distressingly rare to see a female protagonist treated like a whole person, with family history, a relationship that informs her character without defining it, and who has wants, needs, and feelings without being treated as some fragile creature who mostly just waits to be rescued from things. Virgin does have to struggle to hold her own ground when working alongside Nate Sixkiller, but that’s more a function of his extreme competence than any knock against her. In the same way that Eowyn (The Lord of the Rings) is a perfectly great character in her own right who gets things done, but if you put her on a battlefield with Legolas, she might not have much to do. Despite that, Virgin frequently takes the lead and most importantly, when she does get an assist from her co-star, it is played completely in the line of duty, with no remarks from Nate about any weakness on her part, and nothing in her internal monologue about feeling anything other than like the person watching her back successfully watched it.
The second thing to jump out at me in this story was the excellent building and use of mythology, spirituality, and other supernatural elements which are otherwise so rare in a mostly western sci-fi story. The fantasy elements are interwoven very naturally, and you rarely feel like anything is out of place, even when a possibly-imaginary eagle is attacking people with semi-automatic machine guns. A lot of these elements are only touched upon, however, especially since one of Virgin’s defining qualities at this stage of the story is her doubt that any of this part of her life is even real. There is no doubt, however, that this world of spirits and myths goes a lot deeper. I have great hopes for the later books of this series to explore these elements, if simply because there’s so little sci-fi that ever includes this kind of thing.
My only real criticism of this book is the tendency towards the end for a whole pile of plot twists to be dumped on me at once. While this has the advantage of setting up a whole lot of potential plot points for future books in the series, it was a bizarre left turn from an otherwise pretty straitlaced Western, even with all the other fantasy and sci-fi elements. One or two unexpected reveals are fine, in fact I love the odd curve ball, but this was a little excessive. The ending of the story comes so abruptly in the middle of trying to synthesize several new revelations that it was a little jarring. That said, since all it really did was make me want to read the next book in the series to find out where it goes, it’s not even much of a criticism.
Fans of the western style wedded to sci-fi or fantasy elements should definitely check out The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins, which has the benefit of a great female protagonist, as well. For more of the spirituality with a modern setting, Charles De Lint is always my go-to suggestion. For people who want it all, and simply want more from Virgin and De Pierres, the next book in this series, Mythmaker was released in 2015.
Dan received an ARC of this book courtesy of Angry Robot Books via NetGalley