A young man with a price on his head rides into a Nevada town built around a busted silver mine and ends up working for the sheriff and his Native American deputy, who each have their own secrets. The beginning of The Six-Gun Tarot would be a great start to any Western, but R.S. Belcher’s debut novel uses that foundation to mix in splashes of American Gods and Good Omens, plus a heaping portion of H.P. Lovecraft. The resulting mix is strange, but it produces a thrilling and fun read about faith, free will, and finding something worth fighting for.
An elder evil is stirring as miners dig deeper into Golgotha’s mine in search of more precious metal, and it’s up to the town’s strange residents to keep it from ending the world. Luckily, they’re well-equipped for the job. The sheriff may be incapable of dying. His deputy is a son of Coyote. The new arrival, Jim, carries a powerful Chinese artifact, and the mayor is the guardian of a cache of holy relics.
Belcher’s story alternates perspective between more than half a dozen characters and manages the rare feat of keeping any of the chapters from feeling like a roadblock between the readers and better content. Some of the stories are weaker than others: There are two generic romance plotlines, and one character’s chapters start off strong, but later feel far too much like exposition dumps. But mostly, the book keeps rushing toward a seriously dramatic climax, and even the characters who aren’t packing supernatural powers are easy to get attached to.
The book’s serious weakness is in its treatment of women. One character is severely punished for wanting more out of marriage than the financial security and prestige provided by being the mayor’s beard. Belcher spends a lot of time offering an enticing background for another character who has been trained in stealth, subterfuge, and a thousand ways to kill. But while she eventually does get to show off, she spends much of the book moping about how womankind’s natural impulse “to serve” caused her to let her skills rot by locking herself into a marriage with an abusive, selfish drunk who doesn’t love her. The gender politics are disappointing, since Belcher proves he’s capable of addressing tough issues like race and homosexuality.
One of the most entertaining parts of The Six-Gun Tarot is when the characters reference past adventures in Golgotha, like the time a giant bat-like creature swept in and stole the town’s barber, or the last time they needed to bust out the cache of silver bullets in the sheriff’s office. It feels like the book is just a season finale of a long-running TV show. It has a satisfying conclusion, but one that leaves many more stories left to tell.