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The Apparition Trail
Lisa Smedman
Tesseract Books, 266 pages

The Apparition Trail
Lisa Smedman
Lisa Smedman is an author and a game designer. She has done extensive work on various role playing games for Wizards of the Coast, TSR and Deadlands! She is the author of five best­selling Shadowrun novels including The Lucifer Deck, Blood Sport, Psychotrope, The Forever Drug and Tails You Lose. In addition, she has authored two novels and contributed numerous short stories for anthologies set in the Forgotten Realms world. Extinction was on The New York Times best seller list. Lisa lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Tails You Lose
SF Site Review: The Forever Drug

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

It is 1884 on the prairies, but a very different 1884 than the one in Canadian history books. Since a mysterious comet struck Earth's moon in 1877, magical phenomena have become real. For Europeans, this has manifested in the development of perpetual motion technology, which is swiftly replacing coal and steam on the partially completed Canadian Pacific Railroad. And for tribes like the Cree and Blackfoot, magic holds the promise of powerful spells to banish foreign interlopers from the plains and restore the vanishing buffalo herds.

When Corporal Marmaduke Grayburn is summoned to see RCMP Superintendent Sam Steele, he is dismayed, fearing his secret past has caught up to him and he will be discharged. Steele is interested in something Grayburn has kept quiet, all right, but not what Grayburn feared. The Mounties want to hear about Grayburn's paranormal and precognitive abilities because they are forming Q Division -- an elite psychic task force.

Settlers, railroad workers and even Mounties are disappearing all across the prairies, and nobody knows how or why. Grayburn is being sent to investigate -- a mission that will lead him along the strange and terrifying Apparition Trail.

Canadian audiences will very much enjoy Lisa Smedman's alternate history setting and the many real historical figures who populate it, ranging from Sam Steele to Francis Dickens, (son of novelist Charles Dickens and a very inept RCMP officer) to a cameo appearance by Sir John A. himself. Smedman has done her research, and she does not neglect the Cree, Blackfoot, Assineboine, Salteaux, Blood and Peigan tribes, nor skate over their brutal exploitation by the Canadian government, RCMP and CPR.

Fantasy elements of this story are appropriate to their setting. The sorcerer, Wandering Spirit, uses Cree spiritualism in his magic, while, among the Europeans, Smedman has a great deal of fun introducing perpetual motion machines, including redesigned train engines and air bicycles (held up by helium balloons).

This well developed background and a complex plot are the strong points of The Apparition Trail. Unfortunately, this is not a character driven novel, and Marmaduke Grayburn comes across as a rather stiff and colourless narrator until almost the end of the book (a problem somewhat exacerbated by Smedman's deliberate use of a formal 19th century writing style). I would have found the story far more compelling if I had known Grayburn's personal dilemma earlier, and had more back story on the mysterious Blackfoot woman, Emily.

Finally, this is a nitpick, but a map would really have been a boon for those of us who navigate Canada these days by highways rather than river systems.

Copyright © 2004 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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