Review: The Buntline Special

The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick is a Steampunk portal into the historic old West. As mechanical genius Ned Buntline assists famed inventor Thomas Edison on a secret mission, Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers prepare for their face off against the McLaury brothers and the Clanton gang in the famed Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It is a crisp new take on some legendary characters.

The Mississippi River separates the budding United States of America from the untamed riches that lie out West. Indian medicine men like Geronimo hold powerful magic over the land, preventing the expansion of the young nation. On behalf of and funded by the American government, Thomas Edison sets up shop in Tombstone, Arizona. His mission is to discover a means to neutralize the spiritual hold the Apache wizard holds on the land. With the help of Ned Buntline’s creative genius, the town is soon bustling with Edison’s horseless stagecoaches and gasless street lights. But it is Geronimo’s direct threat on their lives which brings chaos to Tombstone.

These storied characters have been portrayed many times throughout literature and film, but Resnick has let them loose in a Steampunk environment and given the reader a chance to think what if. Sure there is the familiar – the Earps are fixed with heroic resolve and the bad guys are stifled with clichéd lawlessness. But this time around, Bat Masterson is burdened with a curse to suit his name and the notorious Johnny Ringo raises from the dead as a zombie with guns loaded for vengeance. Not to be outshined, it is the charismatic vice ridden character of Doc Holliday who bursts from the pages. Whether it is his knowledge of his own mortality at the hands of tuberculosis or his card playing love for chance, the casual persona of a man who knows more than he lets on keeps the reader glued to every word, wanting more.

The spiritual magic and clever inventions woven throughout this wild time in American history is the core of The Buntline Special plot. The gambit of classic characters we’ve heard and read about brings it all together. But it is Mike Resnick’s artistic ability to paint Doc Holliday as a faulted hero who can comfortably fit in the Steampunk world that actually makes this book a success.