THE BUNTLINE SPECIAL
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Mike Resnick’s interest in the legends of the American West has long been evident in his novels. His characters in Oracle, Santiago, and the Widowmaker series, among others, are clearly based on the larger than life figures that populated the frontier and the dime novels more than an hundred years ago. Resnick has finally turned his attention to the real men who lived in that world with The Buntline Special, set in the months leading up to and following the gunfight at the OK Corral.
Not content to let the Earps and the Clantons fight it out, Resnick introduces several other historical figures, from Ned Buntline to Thomas Edison, to Tombstone. Edison has been sent to Tombstone in order to use his almost preternatural gift for invention to turn the frontier town into a city of the future. Buntline has arrived to make Edison’s inventions into a practical reality for the town. The Earps are now agents to protect the two men whose lives are important to a United States whose westward expansion has been stopped by the Mississippi River by the spiritual forces of Indians such as Geronimo and Hook Nose. Told mostly from the point of view of “Doc” Holliday, the book has a clear bias and morality regarding the characters and events.
Resnick’s Tombstone is a steampunk frontier town, with streetlights and mechanical whores. A series of stagecoaches, the Buntline Specials, operate without the need of horses to draw them. For horse rustlers, like the Clantons, the appearance of horseless carriages threatens their illegal trade and they target Edison and Buntline, resulting in the Earps calling for backup in the form of Holliday and Bat Masterson.
The Buntline Special clearly allows Resnick to have fun with his love of the Frontier and with the current tropes of science fiction and fantasy. In addition to the trappings of steampunk, The Buntline Special includes zombies, robots, vampires, and guns which are akin to lasers. Magic also works in this milieu, particularly for the native American tribesmen who are powerful enough, whether it means keeping the majority of White Men east of the Mississippi, or laying of curses. In the face of the entertainment afforded by the mixing of these disparate elements, it is, perhaps, not quite fair to take a closer look at the world building which never quite seems to fit entirely together.
Although Doc Holliday’s name is always linked to Wyatt Earp’s, in The Buntline Special, Holliday is given a close, if strange, relationship with Johnny Ringo. The men’s similarities as educated men in an uneducated world draw them together, but their abilities as gunfighters and their positioning on opposite sides in the coming battle mean that the two know they will eventually have to square off, and discover which of them is a better gunslinger. Their not-quite-friendship over esoteric topics is where The Buntline Special really comes alive, perhaps indicative of Resnick’s own entertainment at the pair’s friendly rivalry.The Buntline Special is a fun trip back to a fantastic version of the American West just as its untamed nature reaches its climax with the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Less concerned about examining the intricacies of either side’s claim, Resnick takes characters whose reputations are all larger than life and manages to magnify them further, providing the reader with an entertaining novel and a new spin on the Old West.
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