QUEEN OF SWORDS by RS Belcher (cover by Raymond Swanland, all rights remain with current holder) is the third Golgotha novel (following Six-Gun Tarot and Shotgun Arcana). Maude Stapleton, a widow and a member of the Daughters of Lilith (ancient monster-slaying sisterhood) sets out to find her daughter Constance, whose been kidnapped back to South Carolina by Maude’s father, who intends to make a proper Southern lady out of her. Unfortunately, Constance is also of interest to the other Sisters who think she can restore their powers, and to the monstrous Sons of Typhon. And in an interrelated plot, Maude’s ancestor Anne Bonney seeks a sinister ancient city called Carcosa.
WHAT I LEARNED
Shaking things up doesn’t always work. I love the accursed town of Golgotha, where pretty much everyone is a little strange. Setting this adventure against the backdrop of South Carolina and Africa didn’t work so well for me. Belcher’s flair for the strange is certainly still effective, but set in the normal world it felt more like a conventional fantasy adventure. Likewise Maude’s awesome fighting abilities felt more believable in Golgotha than against a nominally real-world locale.
What works in one medium doesn’t work in another. I wouldn’t bat an eye at Maude’s martial arts skills if this were a comic book — Daredevil’s old foe Bullseye, for instance, could certainly disarm someone with a convenient letter. But like I said, her abilities in combat, her superhypnotic voice and her other skills felt very unconvincing. Possibly I’m just succumbing to the sexism I’ve complained about before, but I don’t think I’d be any happier if Maude were male. It’s not that she’s invincible, but even the deformed brutes called the Sons of Typhon aren’t as threatening as they should be.
The strong woman thing. That said, I do like that Maude and Constance take their own awesomeness for granted. When Maude has to push back against male sexism it’s entirely in the mundane realm — the law gives her dad control of her money and her daughter, and she has to take him on in a sexist court system (as Foz Meadows says, a common manifestation of female strength is having to push back against male bullshit). Nor is there any sense that other women are somehow inferior or content under patriarchy (something I’ve discussed here). Maude’s formidable, but she wields her strength because she lucked into the training.
That said, I honestly don’t see what the story gains by giving Anne a rape as part of her backstory.
Words matter, particularly when writing in the past. As noted in my reviews of the previous Golgotha novels, Belcher often uses words that I think feel out of place in the 19th century. There was some of that here (and also calling the duties imposed on the Daughters “the Load” really sounds clunky) but more than specific words, the dialog in South Carolina feels off. The judge and opposing attorney seem to toss out way too many cusswords (though I may be underestimating their prevalence at the time) and it feels unconvincing. Maude’s father has a long speech bearing his soul about the burdens being a man imposes on him and I didn’t buy it at all — it felt much more the kind of confessional speech I’d hear a twentieth century character, post-1960s, say. And there’s a lot more like it.
In addition Typhon is that annoying kind of villain who wants to share his deep insights about life (it’s meaningless! You’re foolish to cling to it!) and they ain’t that deep. Not that we’re supposed to believe him (unlike other clever insights), but even so he’s boring to listen to.
It’s rough to compete with an archetype. The backstory on Typhon as a spawn of the world-destroying Wyrm unfortunately makes me think of a Hellboy knockoff — the Wyrm as the Oghdru Jahad, Typhon and his followers as the monstrous children, the Oghdru Hem. That’s not really fair because the concept goes back before Hellboy (Lovecraft, obviously), but to me Mike Mignola’s has become the archetype for such fiction along with HPL. So anyone who comes close to the concept as Mignola uses it is going to suffer in my eyes, even if it isn’t fair.
All that said, I enjoyed the book and look forward to Golgotha 4.