Golgotha is a small town just outside the 40-Mile Desert of Nevada, a haven for people from all sorts of backgrounds: a sheriff who has beaten death several times, a Native American who is half human, a gay Mormon mayor who guards more than the town itself, a young boy running from his past and a woman who belongs to a secret order of warriors, just to name a few. 

Golgotha is also a place where strange events take place–especially recently–all under the watching eyes of someone who has been there since the beginning of time, guarding an ancient evil that is slowly preparing a comeback, bringing chaos and darkness and possibly the end of the world.

Unless the good people at Golgotha can put a stop to it.

There is an incredible sense of vastness when it comes to The Six-Gun Tarot, in spite of its main town’s isolation. It comes with the description of the desert wasteland that surrounds it but also from the multiple narrative PoVs – all of the characters mentioned above (and a few more) sharing the spotlight in the build-up to the big showdown. Each of its characters possesses a secret supernatural side that is called upon in their greatest time of need.  

This vastness is further explored in the myriads of flashbacks that each character has, in the diversity of stories and of characters presented here. Although at times some of these flashbacks fall on the annoying side of exposition and even break the natural flow of the narrative (there is a completely out-of-place flashback in the MIDDLE of the climax), most of them are engaging and interesting, adding more gravitas to each of these characters. Added to this plethora of interesting, complex characters is a fun (if very familiar) plot that promises the end of the world if they don’t get their shit together and a couple of no-holds-barred exciting fighting sequences. 

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On another very positive note, there is a multicultural motif here as Golgotha is a town with Chinese immigrants, Native Americans and whites of different backgrounds and the story examines the fraught tensions that stem from this diversity. These characters have diverse religious beliefs, some experience racism and there is also a gay character who struggles with his religion but who is also happily in love with another man even as they both know society will never openly accept them.

As such, there is a clear intention to show racism, sexism and bigotry as negative things even if they are a part of the reality within the story. Which is pretty cool since often, in historical fantasy novels, there is a frustrating need to excuse in-text unquestioned racism, sexism and bigotry as “historically accurate”.    

That said: I do have several misgivings and think that the obvious good intentions of the book are not communicated that well, which to me, the way I interpreted those threads, translates into conflicting and very confusing messages to the detriment of the narrative.

For example: Maude is the sole female member of this six-gun tarot, one among this group who fight in the end for Golgotha. She is a member of an awesome historical order of women who understand the world is built upon stupid sexist ideas. And at first, I was completely in love with this idea of these proto-feminist warriors. But then, as the story progresses, we are awarded with the IDEALS that motivate this group of women: that as women, they were created “to protect, to nurture, to defend and to counsel" and it’s “in the nature of us, to serve, to please”.

This is very tricky because this society does empower women but the fact remains that, in the book,  this ideal still limits their roles based on an idea of “femininity” that is still very much traditional, gender essentialist and backwards.

This is all the more clear because Maude is the One Special Woman in a narrative that otherwise presents every other woman in the story as victims (not to mention that the main Evil of the book and the source of the Darkness takes the body of a sad, mistreated female character as the Whore of Babylon).   

Similarly problematic for me is that even though racism is definitely questioned and presented as something Bad here, the fact remains that, in the book, one of the main characters in the novel is a Native American who is the ONLY shapeshifter in the novel as a half coyote (reads: bestial) and who is called Mutt. That’s right: Mutt. Even though some of the (white) characters question why he is named as such, Mutt still doesn’t have another name. That is problematic to me, even as I acknowledge the importance given to Mutt as a character, his essential role in saving Golgotha and the fact that keeping his name can be interpreted as reclaiming it.  

Finally, I can’t help but to feel that this is Christian Fantasy in disguise.[1] One the main aspects of the Worldbuilding are the diverse religions that meet in Golgotha. There is even a very interesting conversation between the young boy Jim and the Chinese community leader that philosophically states:

“People, Jim,” Ch'eng said, “Gods all need people. People thought them up; people gave them their names, duties, domains. People raise them to the heights of praise and power or relegate them to the darkness of neglect and antiquity. Gods are nothing without people, and depending on what people you ask you will get many different answers to questions about Heaven and Hell, how the universe was made and how it will end. Ask a Chinese, an Indian, a Mormon, a Christian and a Jew. Each one will give you a different answer and they are all correct; they all exist and have power, within their proper domains, with their chosen people, and, if they are strong enough, even beyond."

But the fact remains that, in the book, the world was actually created by a very Judeo-Christian god. And even though this Christian God’s actions are questioned, the fact remains that the world and its people are still his creation to toy with and that he has gifted people with free will – which is how they can think of “other religions.” [2] Even the quote above, as cool as it is, still reinforces this idea when it says that people “thought the gods up” when “people” in the book, were created by this First God who is definitely a very much Christian God.

Now, to me, those issues unquestionably obfuscate much of the positive aspects of the novel and I feel I can’t really say that The Six-Gun Tarot was an overall good reading experience. That said, my partner in crime Thea James came away from reading it with a completely different perspective. The discussion continues later today over at The Book Smugglers. 

In Booksmugglerish: a disheartened 4 out of 10 (bad, but not without some merit).

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can find also find them at Twitter.

[1] Not that there is anything wrong with that. It is just that this type of story framing does not interest me at all.

[2] In retrospect I should have known. After all, “Creation” with capital C was right there staring at my face in the very official blurb. I guess I saw “Buffy meets Deadwood” and my mind went WANT.