Review: The Magpie Coffin

The Magpie Coffin Cover

I was kindly offered a review copy of this book by the publisher, but decided very quickly to buy it in order to support the author.

I rarely read Westerns. I’ve known many who do – often ex-soldiers, for some reason –  but while I enjoy the occasional Clint Eastwood movie, my experience with them is minimal.

I finished this book in two days. That’s only because I a) had other work to do and b) wanted to not consume it all in one quick gulp!

Salem Covington is an ex-soldier, having survived the American Civil War intact in body… but not in soul. We discover that he and his brother made a deal, and he has to follow through on that. His legend is notorious, and when he walks into a bar, the scar on his face means only fools challenge him (and of course, they do).

But that’s only part of the story. Salem spent a whole mess o’ time (yes, he speaks like that) learning what could be called ‘magic’ from his local Native tribe – and the tale begins when he learns that his esteemed teacher has been killed by A Right Gang of Bastards.

So because his deal means that he can’t be killed by any bullet except that from a particular gun, and as the titular Black Magpie he has to avenge his teacher’s murder, he grabs up the body (coffin and all), acquires a random sidekick, and sets off to fulfil his task.

This book has the subtitle of ‘A Splatter Western’, and yes, it’s gory in places. But I think that’s actually a misnomer. I’ve studied American history, and this book seems to nail the cynical attitudes and yet ‘interesting’ sense of honour held by folks in the (very) Wild West at that time. A war has ended that saw more people dead than any other in history, until World War One. People are doing their best just to get by. Violence is a familiar neighbour.

Salem tells the story, and while you sometimes get the urge to wince at his actions, it can’t be argued that he’s absolutely justified in what he does. He may be a Bad Man, but those he fights are so very much worse. By the end, I was cheering him on.

Given my limited knowledge of the fictional West, I admit to seeing parallels between this and the TV show Firefly. That carries an undercurrent of desperation as well, survival against the odds, and doing what has to be done, even when it seems foolish or dangerous.

The atmosphere, though – it’s akin to Silent Hill. The wilds of America are, to me, parallel in storytelling to the moors in Britain, or the forests of Europe. This place absolutely has its own character, and its own spirits.

Salem’s no hero, by his own admission. But he’s the one we’ve got – and by the conclusion, I was sad to see him ride off into the sunset. I very much want to know what he gets up to next.

The additional quirk of including Native tribal magic means you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Is the corpse talking to Salem, or is he imagining it? Does it matter? And if it didn’t, where did that bear come from?!

This is an excellent tale, engrossing and memorable. It deals respectfully with the spirits of the Old West, be they Blue, Grey or Red, and every character is well drawn. I was especially pleased to see some strong women arrive in the narrative, even if they weren’t always the most pleasant. Assume nothing about anyone in this book.

Absolutely recommended, and already looking forward to what this fine gentleman writes next.

‘The Black Magpie’ is published by Death’s Head Press, and is available from all the usual bookstores, in paperback and ebook.

 

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