20 December 2014

Review: Nunslinger by Stark Holborn

Stark Holborn
Hodder, December 2014
Paperback, 614 pages

I was sent this book by the publisher through Bookbridgr.

I've never been a great reader of Westerns, and I'd find it hard to say what attracted me to this book in the first place, but I'm really glad I tried it.

Set in 1864, against a background of the US Civil War, this is the story of Sister Thomas Josephine, a nun sent on the dangerous journey West to join a convent in Sacramento.  When the waggon train she is travelling with is attacked, she is abducted by the notorious outlaw Abraham C Muir.  The two are a mismatched pair, but as they bicker their way through the wilderness, a real friendship seems to form between them.  Will it survive brushes with the law, hunger and cold, and the rapacious spirit of greed abroad in the Frontier towns?

Forced by circumstances to take up arms, Thomas Josephine finds her beliefs challenged and is forced to take up arms.  As the "Six-gun Sister" she becomes a terror across the west - and has  a bounty set upon her head. With every shooting, every encounter with law or army (whether North or South) it seems less likely she will be able to find peace and security as she wishes, still less the life of prayer and good works that she has been trained for.

The book was fun to read, has a relentless, page-turning rhythm and, as the blurb promises, serves up cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger.  Perhaps a little too much so - it's not long before the reader knows full well that Thomas Josephine will escape (more or less) intact from every dire situation.  While this diminishes the tension somewhat, Holborn has set out a broad enough canvas that he's continually able to find something to surprise with and as the book draws to its climax we begin to learn what has really been going on and how what seem like random, picaresque adventures have something of a guiding hand behind them.

This isn't a book for the squeamish: there's a great deal of violence (visited on both guilty and innocent alike) and the most pleasant seeming of characters can turn rapidly bad. Thomas Josephine is at the centre of things, both morally and in terms of action, struggling to keep her vision alive, to walk in right paths and to escape the notoriety that has engulfed her (girls in the  towns she passes through are soon playing at being the Sister).  How far she achieves this is unclear, but the ending feels right for the spirit of the book.

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