We all love a good western. Stories of daring outlaws and courageous lawmen living on the fringes of civilization. They’re even better when you throw in jet bikes, heat guns and robots! Such is the world of Wild West Exodus which Craig Gallant introduces us to in the first of the Jesse James Archives Honor Among Outlaws.
Jesse James is a legend in the wild west. After getting wounded fighting for the South in the Civil War, Jesse was given a set of mechanical arms by the mysterious Dr Carpathian and went to cement his name in history with what has become known as the Great Train Job. But people have notoriously short memories and Jesse fears that his reputation as the fastest gun in the west is becoming overshadowed. Enter Billy the Kid with stories of buried treasure which the Warrior Nation and the Union will do anything to get their hands on. Could this be the way for Jesse to make sure his name will forever be remembered?
However, the famed Outlaw has other problems than just his reputation. Over-Marshal Wyatt Earp and his Lawmen are hot on his heels, bringing with the full technological might of the law, while a pair of mysterious government agents have turned up in Kansas City looking for him. All the while the Mad European Dr Carpathian seems to have some plans of his own.
Honor Among Outlaws is Craig Gallant’s first novel and as such I have to say it is pretty impressive. The book is an excellent window into the world of Wild West Exodus and Gallant does a great job in establishing the setting. I deliberately came to this without learning anything of Wild West Exodus’ background and found that, while to start with you might find yourself a little lost with the terminology, you very quickly get to grips with the story and are left with the image of a whole world being shaken by technological advances.
Gallant is particularly good at establishing the quiet menace which presides throughout the background of the Wild West Exodus setting. The book opens with a raiding party from the Native American faction the Warrior Nation. From them we learn of that there is something menacing and sinister about the new technology, powered by the mysterious RJ-1027, before we even encounter it for ourselves. This serves to colour our interpretations and expectations of it, especially as we go on to see just how omnipresent it has become in American society.
Gallant furthers this atmosphere of all pervading menace through deliberate ambiguity. While relatively simple characters like Jesse James and Wyatt Earp are easy to understand in terms of their motivations, those above them or who otherwise are able to influence events are left in shadowy ambiguity. This is a great way of drawing the reader into the mystery and suspense of the story, while also making the world itself all the more threatening and diabolical in nature.
Possibly Gallant’s greatest success in the novel is with the characters. For the most part, the characters we come across are painted as being fairly complex characters with distinct personalities and character traits. They’re dialogue tends to be particularly well written. Gallant writes their speech in the accents of the wild west, something which can often be hard to do well within stories, but does serve to distinguish and further characterise the people within the story. The character relationships, like that between Jesse and Frank James, make you really care about the characters. You feel genuinely invested and even heart broken when things go wrong and it is this is which truly serves to pull the reader through the story.
However, this is by no means a perfect book. There are many moments at which I thought the story could have benefited from a further editing. Typos and spelling mistakes abound. This is something which we usually allow to slide in books, but I felt that there was enough to justify a more stringent edit.
In terms of the story, it takes a long time for the actual plot to get started. At the beginning it feels more like a series of vignettes which don’t move the plot along much, although they do serve to present us with a good introduction to the characters and sets the stage well for the future events of the further novels.
There are often moments which don’t seem to make much sense in terms of those characters. For instance, Jesse James starts off by mocking Billy the kid when he first comes to him with the story of buried treasure, but without any real reason he begins to seriously consider and plan for his proposal to find it. The reader is left with a feeling of whiplash as Jesse’s attitude towards it changes without warning.
Possibly the best example of things not making sense within the story is the sub-plot involving the two Federal Agents. They arrive in Kansas City with the aim of finding Jesse James in hopes that he will lead them to Carpathian. We learn from them that the Union government has been trying to find the Mad European and we are left with the impression that he must be well hidden in some out of the way place in the middle of nowhere. Where does he turn out to be? Living in a palace in the town he named himself, which is apparently well known with the people of the wild west. We are just left wondering how it is that the Union has not been able to find this man when he is in the most obvious place possible.
There are also a couple of moments which feel entirely pointless to the plot and probably could have been done without, such as a scene in which Jesse and his gang spend the night at the Sacred Lake settlement. Gallant builds up a real sense of mystery and tension to the place, but it ultimately leads to an anti-climax. Rather than to further the story this bit was quite obviously just to show off a future faction which will be appearing.
While I think the characters and dialogue are Gallant’s greatest strength as a writer, there are a couple of moments where he lets modern words and usages slip in, such as when one of the younger Cole’s uses the word “awesome” in the sense of something cool. I don’t know if the word would have been used in that context back in the 19th century, but this and other such moments became a bit jarring.
All in all I would definitely recommend Honor Among Outlaws to anyone looking to find out more of Wild West Exodus. While the story has its flaws, I cannot deny that Gallant has done brilliantly in fleshing out the world of the game, bringing its various characters to colourful life and providing many options for new narrative scenarios. Although I felt that the book could have benefited from a closer edit in order to tighten up the story, it was still a very entertaining read in its own right and left me dying to know what happens next.