Clay Davis is well-known within the Arizona steampunk community, so it's no surprise that this western takes the odd confident step into that genre, albeit not quite as much as I might have expected.
It's perhaps best described as a pulp western, with a secret organisation of misfits tasked with tackling what ought to be a seemingly unending supply of villains in future books. They are the X-Troop of the title, of course, known officially as the Elite Cavalry Territorial Guard and they're separated from President Ulysses S. Grant by only a single general. Their first opponents are a criminal gang known as the Locusts.
The book succeeds best at framing this pulp team's origin story, to show where the future cycle began and set in motion where it's going. Davis carefully sets up the need for secrecy by explaining away General Custer's death at the Little Bighorn in conspiracy theory terms: he was brave but rash, highlighted not only by the choices in battle that led to his demise but by his raising to Congress corruption that went all the way up to President Grant's brother. If this 'threat from within' can't be tackled through appropriate channels, then they must be tackled outside them! That's what we learned from 'The Untouchables', right?
I liked this set-up and I liked where it took us. Davis starts well but gets better as the story builds and the characters begin to find themselves. I only wish they'd had longer to do so and that Davis had spent a little more time in the editing process. Certainly this is a complete novel, with a good first act to introduce the core idea, a decent second as the X-Troop is put together and a strong third as they're thrown into their first real job and, needless to say, come out on top. It's notable also that the action grows consistently from a talky beginning to a wild finale, meaning that the book is hard to put down.
Unfortunately, the drawbacks are often the usual ones for a first-time novelist self-publishing his work. The layout is awful, with badly set margins, no justification and awkward page numbering. To play devil's advocate, the proofing is capable and smartquotes and italics are consistent, so it's not all bad on this front. As if to highlight that typographic schizophrenia, the front cover looks great but the back cover is entirely blank. It's hardly surprising to discover that it's basically an e-book thrown at a printer, even if it's a commercial printer that can do binding.
Now if my publisher's eye and rampant OCD for layout can be won over by a good story, that means that 'The X-Troop' has something strong going for it. The odd layout makes it difficult for me to gauge the book's true length but it runs under a hundred pages and I devoured it in two nights, so it's either a short novel or a novella. I'd like to see it as a regular length novel, though, expanded especially to bolster the characters as there are too many of them to really benefit from this length.
The one who benefits most in this one is the leader of this new band, Colonel Orsen Ritter, who, like Custer, has ended up on the wrong side of bad people in power. He begins the story unfairly behind bars in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth but soon gains release through the efforts of General Phil Sheridan, who by contrast, begins the story chatting with President Grant on the banks of the Delaware. Ritter is Sheridan's choice to run the X-Troop and he gives him free reign to populate it.
And so Sheridan exits stage left, only a few chapters in, so that Ritter can take over and build his team. While Davis ably uses this point to set up a number of important things to the story, I'd have been happier if he'd have expended many more words on his hiring spree. While I see this as the beginning of a pulp western series of books, it could easily compared to the pilot episode of a western TV show and those pilots usually run feature length for a reason: to allow for the necessary introductions. Unfortunately, each of the five key hires show up in chapters that mostly run a mere couple of pages each. I'd say that they're all worthy of more substantial introductions.
And that's because that Ritter's choices are interesting, to say the very least. If they could be described as a little optimistic for the time, a secret team working one step away from the US President is the one place where social conventions could viably be ignored in favour of getting the job done. It also means that the sheer diversity of these recruits is something that would play well to future books. I presume that each member of the team will be given prominence in stories to come in order to highlight precisely what makes them special to this unit. We start to see that here, but again we run out of pages before everyone gets a fair shot.
The other thing that stood out to me, ironically given the wild make-up of the X-Troop, is an attention to history. The United States in 1876 is hardly my area of historical expertise, but, the X-Troop aside, this rings true and there's a good use of period vocabulary to ground us in that setting. I left my review long enough that I can't remember which words I needed to look up, but there were a couple, whose meaning was still clear from context.
I'd recommend 'The X-Troop,' heartily, to anyone who has an interest in pulp adventure and especially pulp westerns, though with the caveats that the layout may just drive you batty and there should have been a lot more pages than there were. There's an old theatre maxim that every performer should 'leave them wanting more' and I'm eager for the next adventure of the X-Troop. ~~ Hal C F Astell