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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Rob Deborde: "Portlandtown, A Tale of the Oregon Wyldes"
Author: Rob Deborde Title:Portlandtown: A Tale of the Oregon Wyldes Plot Type: Dark Fantasy/Steampunk: Zombies in the Rainy Old West Ratings:V4; S1; H2 Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (11/2012)
Set in Northwest Oregon in 1887, this is probably the first novel in a new series, but that has not yet been announced. In any event, the dark premise and the cast of quirky characters definitely lend themselves to further development.
The major supernatural components are a gun that never needs reloading, a book of voodoo spells and curses, a shaman (nicknamed the Voodoo Cowboy) with a magic-touched Native American sidekick, a resurrected outlaw who won't die and who wants his magical gun back, and a family with magical talents and a few very dark secrets. These elements are at the heart of the story threads that begin slowly and separately and then are gradually woven together until they explode in the ending climax.
The story begins in Astoria, Oregon, as ex-Marshall James Kleberg finds himself mindlessly digging up graves in the local cemetery as he tries to remember something that he keeps forgetting. When the local undertaker finds him and notifies his family that the old man seems to be getting senile, the Marshall's son-in-law, Joseph Wylder (the head of the titular Wylder family), comes to move him to Portland. As soon as the Marshall leaves Astoria, a teen-age boy named Henry Macke feels a calling in his head that pulls him to the cemetery where he digs up an unmarked grave and uncovers the body of the Hanged Man, an infamous outlaw who supposedly has been hanged more than once (but escaped each time) and has been shot multiple times. The Hanged Man (he has no other name) has been buried for more than a decade, but his body looks freshly dead. By this point, Henry has fallen in with a trio of low-lifes, and they pull the body out of its grave and sell it to a freak show. Meanwhile, the shaman (Andre Labeau) gets a shivery feeling that means someone has found his spell-book, which is so full of evil that he buried it in the Hanged Man's grave, hoping that it would never be unearthed. Andre knows that someone must have dug up the body and the book, and he and his assistant, Naira, are soon on their trail.
The backdrop for all of these events is rainy Northwest Oregon, where Portlandtown (Portland's original name) is preparing for its annual Rain Festival. The buffoonish mayor has purchased a stone totem pole that he believes will bring the rain that is needed for the Festival. That's right—in Portlandtown, the inhabitants prefer rainy days over sunny days. The author gives us a wonderful sense of wet and muddy Portland, where the streets are Venice-like canals with regular boat services providing transportation from one end of town to the other. As the various story threads percolate and the action builds up, the reader can see that everything will come together at the Rain Festival—and that it does, in a huge, wet, violent wave.
Here is our first look at Portland: "The downtown streets regularly flooded during the spring thaw and when not swamped offered only muddy passage around the larger puddles. The steam-powered streetcars that were supposed to alleviate the public's transportation woes ground to a halt when the water reached its normal April levels and sometimes stayed stuck in the mud until June. Newer construction—of which there was plenty—required raised sidewalks by city ordinance....In truth, the locals liked it wet. Most owned small dories or canoes for the wettest days and had little trouble navigating the raised scaffolding and planks that stretched across the streets like so many makeshift bridges. It was said that all one needed to survive the spring in Portland was a raincoat and a good sense of balance." (p. 26)
This is a terrific book with a fresh and inventive premise and wonderful characters, each with a dark back-story that the author reveals gradually, detail by detail, as the story lines advance. Once you get started, this is definitely a can't-stop-reading kind of book, with compelling action and suspense building from the very first chapter. The story has a few rough spots and one scene in which logic is strained when almost everyone emerges alive and relatively unscathed after a horrendous gun fight, but these slight problems don't interfere with the action, and on the whole this is a very satisfying novel—the author's first, by the way.
One last point: The author explains early in the story that the port of Portland is very busy because "the discovery of vast firestone deposits in western and central Oregon had changed everything....and....assured the amber rush would run through Portland." (p. 25) Later in the book we learn why firestone is so valuable: "New to this year's festivities were the copper umbrella-shaped lanterns that hung from every lamp post and telegraph pole in the business district. Each of the firestone-powered lanterns would burn continuously without oil or electrified power for the entire weeklong festival, regardless of the weather or time of day." (p. 252) Along with Portland's steam-powered street-cars, the firestone adds just a touch of steampunk to the story.
The first read-alike that comes to mind for this series is Devon Monk's THE AGE OF STEAM series, which is also set in the 19th century and begins in the Pacific Northwest. Although STEAM doesn't have zombies, it does have the same feeling of dark supernatural horror as well as a large cast of strange, interesting, and frequently lethal characters. Click HERE to read my overview of Monk's STEAM world and reviews of the first two books in that series.