Two distinctly disconnected books - Stark Holborn's Nunslinger and Rapunzel is Dead. Two books that revisit - and directly challenge - established genres: the Western and the fairy tale.
Stark Holborn's Nunslinger (2013) as an object is already interesting. Hodder & Stoughton were pioneers of "yellow-back" fiction - with a bit of effort you can still find relics of this era, with Hodder's doughty brand emblazoned on "low literature" as wide-ranging as The Saint and Zane Grey. Although certainly the imprint has a range of overtly commercial genre fiction (read Lavie Tidhar on Christopher Farnsworth, for one example), Nunslinger is an overt move to embrace this heritage: see the unrepentantly goofy name, striking covers and the serialised format.
The latter is an important part of Nunslinger's unique appeal - in the post-Wool days, a lot of publishers have been tinkering with this, but few works are actually created with that exact purpose in mind. Nunslinger strikes the balance of being both independent and interconnected, the individual episodes begin, resolve and immediately lead into the next. This is a "book" meant to be consumed (pardon the terrible pun) "religiously" - everything about the serial experience is intended to engender loyalty: the emotional highs and lows, the shared 'event' of a release, the continuous (if punctuated) reading. [I suspect that, with the still-rapid growth of digital and the success that's come with migrating fanfiction authors (who have naturally struck on this format) to traditional publishers, we'll be seeing a lot more of this. And, frankly, about damn time.]
But enough about Nunslinger as a book, what's so interesting about Nunslinger as a text? Is there more than a goofy name? Well... yes. A lot.
Nunslinger follows the adventures of Sister Thomas Josephine as she treks from Missouri out to the much wilder West in 1864. The first instalment seems to set up the series' two core conflicts: Abraham Muir vs Theodore Carthy and reality vs faith. The former is the simpler: Muir and Carthy are two handsome fellows, roguish in their own ways. Muir is a scruffy outlaw, Carthy is a gentleman officer. Sister Josephine is caught between the two and their hatred of one another. The pattern repeats through instalments two and three. Although Sister Josephine has her own connections with the two men - it is their rivalry that consumes them. She is, initially at least, a means of keeping score.
This also feeds into the second great conflict of Sister Josephine's journey: her faith versus the harsh reality of the unsettled West. Curiously, her religious training has best prepared her for the physical challenges - Sister Josephine is not such a saint as to miss having a bath or a hot meal, but she is both stoic and resilient in the face of continuous discomfort. Travelling in the 1860s was pretty miserable - and that's before being shot at, kidnapped or chased.
It is her interactions with other people that reveal a sense of naivete - or, in the more appropriate sense, a "divine foolishness". Sister Josephine sees the world in an idealistic way: people are good, actions are evil; doing the right thing is never a choice, but an absolute necessity. In a moral landscape that Holborn insists on making as foggy a gray as possible, Sister Josephine is a beacon of light - not just shining a way, but also attracting predators.
Strained metaphors aside, what this means is that many of Sister Josephine's problems are of her own making: she steps in where she ought to stay out, she gives her trust too freely and she never does what's easy when there's a harder path to take. She is, in essence, perpetually fascinating: she makes mistakes, but she is never stupid. Everything she does supports the development of her character, and, because of that, the reader winds up liking her, despite her 'mistakes' and utter lack of pragmatism.
Which leads us to Holborn's greatest question - are these mistakes? Certainly Sister Josephine seems to generate trouble wherever she goes, and her 'foolishness' makes her the prime agent for her problems... but is she ever actually wrong? Like the great gunfighters of the Western movies, Sister Josephine is a bit of a white knight, she knows good from bad and steps up to fight the latter. But the cinema gunfighter is the deadliest gun in the West already - the resolution is certain if they choose to get involved. Sister Josephine is far more brave, and her task more impressive: she doesn't hesitate to get involved, and is no Eastwoodian killing machine. She deals, if you'll excuse the semantics, in faith, not certainty.
This is all very heavy stuff, but Nunslinger is more serious than its name would imply. It is an exceedingly fun read with good people, bad people, blazing guns, chases, jailbreaks, derring-do and all sorts of wildness. But it is also the sort of complex morality tale that harkens back to the best of the Western genre - when writers used the chaos of the uncivilised society and the bleakness of the landscape as a setting for discussions of what makes us human. Sister Josephine is part of that great tradition, and, indeed, Nunslinger already ranks amongst the best that the Western genre has to offer.
Finally, some quick (but effusive) praise for Rapunzel is Dead (2013) - an anthology of original fiction put together by the team behind Short Story Day Africa. Rejigging fairytales is one of the hot trends in genre: making them 'real', sexy, steampunk, Weird Western, literary,... you name it. But Rapunzel is Dead may be the most sensibly innovative of the lot: a book of fairytales revisited by children.
The results are charming, funny, intriguing and often insightful. My favourite, I think, is Kimité Cancino's story, "Rapunzel is Dead", from which the anthology's title was taken. It combines a smorgasbord of fairy tale characters and brand names in a tongue-in-cheek quest that combines zombies, Ronald McDonald and Disney movies. It is hilarious, and also deeply disturbing - a Moxyland style indictment of what "children's culture" actually means, and how it is has become savagely commercialised. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot of these names again in the next decade or so. You can find this collection for sale on Amazon, Smashwords and Megabooks. Details here.