I'm taking a break from my monthly progression through Seanan McGuire's 'October Daye' series to take a look at the third novel in the 'Deadlands' series, a weird west shared universe based on the roleplaying game of that name. I'm a sucker for weird west stories anyway, but the previous two (Jonathan Maberry's 'Ghostwalkers'- click here for review and Jeff Mariotte's 'Thunder Moon Rising'- click here for review) were fantastic and McGuire is impressing me more and more with each of her books that I read, so I was really looking forward to this one.
The odd thing is that this didn't feel like a Seanan McGuire book at all. I've read all six of her 'InCryptid' books and I'm seven into her 'Toby Daye' novels and, while the two series do have different tones, they really aren't that far apart. Perhaps Toby is a little more serious and a little less sassy than the various members of the Price family we've met, but there are a lot of similarities and those books all revolve around people rather than places, even with Toby and Faerie. 'Boneyard', however, is completely dominated by its location, to the degree that it dominates the characters and makes them all feel small and insignificant.
Perhaps that's one of the book's themes, because McGuire certainly explores a few here: parenthood, mortality and belonging each spring quickly to mind too. These are each primarily focused on the lead character of Annie Pearl, a name which we eventually discover isn't her real one. She changed it from Grace Murphy when she ran from her husband, a doctor (read: mad scientist) in Deseret, UT, and took their baby daughter along with her, a strange young lady named Adeline who has to take bizarre medicine to keep her alive. They ended up working for the Blackstone Family Circus, where Annie is in charge of the freaks (who are all people) and the oddities (who are not, but are living creatures nonetheless).
The parenthood angle is pretty obvious, but it's deepened later in the book with a further discovery that I won't spoil. There's a lot of attention given to connections here and how they might rank, with the tie between parent and child strongest of all. Another important character, who arrives a third of the way in, is named Hal (no, not for me) and he's a tragic soul whose wife and daughter have become damned. His tie to them echoes Annie's to Adeline, or what it could become in this doomladen hollow in Oregon that goes by The Clearing, to which the circus finds its way in hope of a late season windfall before the winter.
The theme of belonging is utterly obvious too, as this travelling show became a home for Annie and Adeline in ways that their real home never could. Again, other characters quickly echo this. The Clearing is a town but it's also a curse and a prison, because of the horrors which unfolded there in the past, and the townsfolk belong to that curse as much as they do the town, all the more so as the revelations gradually unfold. The creatures that haunt the woods which surround The Clearing belong too, for some terrible and very gothic, reasons.
And that leaves mortality, which is a fragile creature indeed in the weird west. It's a constant from the outset, not just because of Adeline's conditions but because the circus needs another good show to make it through the winter, a concept that soon becomes a mantra as we learn the history behind The Clearing. I have no idea if this book was set in Oregon because of the legendary 'Oregon Trail' computer game in which everyone tends to die; after all, I did discover that game in the same anthology that I first read McGuire. Whatever the reason, we find that pioneer settlements are tough to establish and the choices that have to be made are brutal indeed and, when that's all phrased in a weird west novel, they have rather horrific consequences.
I can't talk about much here without venturing into spoiler territory as this plays out somewhat differently to the usual Seanan McGuire novel (or even its predecessors in the 'Deadlands' series). It's a thoughtful story with age on the page. It's all about the human condition, somewhat like the great American novel if that could ever crawl out of genre fiction. Think 'The Grapes of Wrath' with monsters and freaks.
I can say that the title surprises me, as the story spends very little time in the Boneyard, which is the private part of the circus away from the public eye. Much of it unfolds in the woods, with Annie searching the darkness for her stolen daughter, discovering the horrors behind The Clearing as she goes. Even when she returns and we sit back for the inevitable final battle, which, I should add, is a suitably odd one for a weird west story, it's merely a characterful part of the background rather than a central location.
I'm not going to disparage this book, because I enjoyed the heck out of it and feel that it's going to stay with me, in ways that its predecessors won't. As I closed the last page, I thought of the feel rather than the story, which is fundamentally simple but digs in deep. 'Heart of Darkness' may be an odd comparison to hurl out but that's one other book that found the same reaction from me. I think back not to the story but the doomed journey that sits under it and the magnificent tone that surrounds it all.
However, those predecessors were both glorious rides in ways that this one isn't. I relished that pair of books as wildly enjoyable romps and I plan on revisiting them at some point. They sit in an imaginary drawer marked for their genre and their level of outrageous fun, along with a few others. This one, by comparison, sits in a drawer of its own, painted black as a warning. I'll need to be in a very particular mood to come back to it.
I'm well aware that McGuire has written outside the two series I know. She's an award-winner as Mira Grant, a name I won't explore until her publisher chooses to print her in a real format, not the golden ratio breaking large paperback known as premium. She has other series too, shorter ones that I'd like to track down but haven't yet. I do wonder now how many voices she writes under. As much as I've enjoyed Toby Daye and the Price family in their many adventures, they're all written in a similar voice. 'Boneyard' comes from a different voice entirely and it serves to deepen McGuire's considerable impact on genre fiction. ~~ Hal C F Astell