THE BALLAD OF BILLY BADASS AND THE ROSE OF TURKESTAN
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
William Sanders, in the words of Algis Budrys, is [one of the most under-rated science fiction authors]. Perhaps best known for his humorous alternate history novels Journey to Fusang and The Wild Blue and the Grey, Sanderss most recent novel, The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan is a contemporary tale of a Cherokee who is a veteran of the Gulf War and the Kazakh woman he falls in love with.
Both characters are ethnic minorities in the countries in which they grew up, which gives Sanders the opportunity to take a look at the common mistreatment of minorities by the majorities. Sanders depiction isnt a question of us-versus-them or even a question of putting down other minorities to improve your own lot. He looks at the problems very matter-of-factly. This is the way the world is and it needs to be improved. Billy is presented as a social conservative who doesnt want to see his people or his race assimilated into American, yoneg culture. Although he is talking specifically about the Cherokee, he could just as easily be talking about African-Americans, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Kazakhs or any other minority group.
However, for all the interesting discussions the main characters can have about their ill treatment by society, this just isn't enough to base a book on. Fortunately, Sanders provides the reader with much more. After a brief romance, Janna, the rose of the title, must leave Oklahoma to conduct some research on a small indian reservation in Nevada. Once there, Sanders introduces a gruesome mystery to add to the story line. In doing so, he does a extraordinary job of keeping the details of the murders off-scene, which only adds to their horrific nature. Furthermore, Sanders isnt afraid to kill off his characters with little respect for how likable or dislikable they are. However, each death is needed within the plot of the novel. When he shows the reader the culprits mind from the inside, its very alienness makes it seem more like a force of nature than a villain.
The majority of the novel is taken up with Jenna and Billys relationship, although Sanders also looks at the way nuclear waste is stored on theoretically unusable land and Indian territory in the American West, comparing American willful negligence to Russian neglect in their own waste disposal. This topic was brought home further by the fact that while I read The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan, a news item appeared about the Goshute Indians who had agreed to allow their reservation to be used for "temporary" nuclear waste storage.
Sanderss novel does contain the supernatural, in both the strange energy creature which is threatening the world (it doesnt really have the ability to threaten anything as trivial as our heroes, at least not directly), and Billys grandfather, who helps guide Billy through his adventures. Billys grandfather died five year prior to the beginning of the novel, and takes on the form of a variety of animals, all of whom are sarcastic and ironic, in order to speak to his grandson. Billy's grandfather is typical of the type of humor which pervades much of Sanders's writing and provides welcome relief from some of the darker moments in the novel.
The ending of The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan incorporates a little more deus ex machina than I normally like, however, since this type of ending is somewhat typical of the "monster slayer" legend which Sanders is working with, it may be excused within the context of this particular story.
If you haven't read any of Sanders's novels, The Ballad of Billy Badass and the Rose of Turkestan is as good a place to start as any other, partly because it is currently the only one of his novels in print, although his alternate history novel, Journey to Fusang is available on-line.
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