Romans and cowboys! A demon-powered steamboat! Saloon fights! Distressing damsels! Samuel Clemens! Now this is how you embrace the pulpy side of things and stay the heck out of the uncanny valley. Not least because very unfriendly immortals are likely to sweep down from the uncanny heights and leave you scalped or kilt ded.
Fisk and Shoestring are tough hombres of the Hardscrabble Territories, and as The Incorruptibles opens they’ve been hired by the patrician Cornelius to ride scout and keep an eye on things as the patrician’s steamboat Cornelian makes its way up the Big Rill with an intended destination of Passasuego. Fisk and Shoestring don’t really know why the boat is headed up the river, and frankly they’re not the kind of men who care. If the money is good, they’ll do the job. They’d prefer it if the Rumans would listen to their hard-won wisdom about life on the plains but if they don’t and get themselves killed, it’s pretty much all the same. Should have stayed in Rume with Emperor Tamburlaine.
The steamboat not only has a demon in its firebox, it has its own Ruman intrigues in the patron’s family. The patrician himself is, as one character observes, “a devil for the hunt.” No local guides are going to tell him what’s imprudent. The first son has several of Cornelius’ vices, most notably including heedlessness, plus a few more of his own and few noticeable virtues. Other than being the first son, of course. The second son tries to be a moderating influence, and he even shows signs of believing that Fisk and Shoestring might know a thing or two about the wild lands, what with having ridden their length and breadth, and having survived there for quite a few years. Of course, who listens to second sons? One sister is a decadent viper, the other sister has a Past and maybe some witchery too. Add an impulsive ranking Ruman whose connections have put him on the expedition well before experience should have, a couple of passengers about whom more should have been said to Fisk and Shoestring, plus a Plains winter in the not too distant future, and the scout job quickly turns into far more than they bargained for. Which is the fun that the book promised, isn’t it?
Shoestring, who, just by the by is not human but dvergar, a short but long-lived race, tells most of the story in the first person. He’s the narrator of a Western through and through, nevermind the Rumans, the aurochs that roam the plains, or the demons that drive both the infernal combustion engines and the Hellfire guns that most characters tote.
“I waited, letting that last bit hang. ‘Hell, Fisk. We’ve been in worse spots than this.’
“He looked at Miss Livia, and then away, quick-like- ‘Yeah. I reckon so.’
“‘Maybe there are some complications.’ The woman. The vaettir. The Cornelians. ‘Not much we can do other than cut and run. That what you want to do?’ I already knew the answer.
“He glared at me. ‘You can be cruel, Shoe, when you have a mind. But I’ve always known that about you.’
“‘Not cruel. Just trying to get you to buck up, pard.’
“He spat again. ‘That right?’
“I grinned. ‘That’s right.'” (p. 75)
The vaettir are the original inhabitants of Occidentalia, the lands across the Western Ocean from the Ruman homelands. They had shared the continent with the dvergar in pre-contact days, each keeping to their own territory. The dvergar had accommodated the newcomers; not so the vaettir.
“The creature on the rise seemed to have just coalesced out of air, or risen up from the earth, a thing of dirt and grass, wind and sky, and the blood of settlers. He stood there, impossibly tall, long red hair whipping in the wind. All pointy ears and sharpened teeth. Vaettir.” (p. 10)
If Fisk and Shoestring find the patricians’ ways inscrutable, the sentiment is at least somewhat returned.
“‘He’s a strange man, that Mr Fisk.’ Secundus’ words suggested puzzlement rather than condemnation.
“‘I once knew a man who had one of those intestinal eels from far Tchinee. Rode with him for a year. Been a lascar in his youth and fallen overboard in eel-infested waters. Didn’t look like nothing was wrong with him, either, having that eel living in his belly. At night, after the fire had died down and he started to snoring, that eel would get curious, stick its head out of the man’s mouth, and chitter at whoever noticed it.’
“Secundus said, ‘You’re joking, surely.’
“I smiled. ‘Not about this. Saw it myself.’ …
“‘I find this hard to believe, Mr Ilys [Shoestring’s proper name].’
“‘Believe what you will. There’s strange like Mr Fisk. And then there’s strange.'” (pp. 76–77)
The adventures of the partners and the Rumans they are escorting turn out to be more of the latter. People get into trouble because of who they are. In trying to get out of it — or in pursuit of their hearts’ desires — they get in deeper still. The man who keeps the ship’s demons under control turns out to have more than a few of his own. His assistant is playing a different, long game. And then there are the vaettir waiting, uncannily fast, willing to wait for the right moment to seize interlopers. Plus more than one character turns out to have a Past that impinges on the present. Who will make it through the final shootout? Not everyone, that much is sure.
The Incorruptibles is such good fun that I hope the characters don’t turn out to be world-changing heroes in the next two volumes, Foreign Devils and Infernal Machines. I want them to stay strange.