Deadlands: Ghostwalkers by Jonathan Maberry – A Review

A Copy of this Book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for a Honest Review.

The Official Book Blurb:
“From New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry, the first in a thrilling series of novels based on Deadlands, a hugely successful role-playing game (RPG) set in the Weird, Weird West.

Welcome to the Deadlands, where steely-eyed gunfighters rub shoulders with mad scientists and dark, unnatural forces. Where the Great Quake of 1868 has shattered California into a labyrinth of sea-flooded caverns . . . and a mysterious substance called “ghost rock” fuels exotic steampunk inventions as well as plenty of bloodshed and flying bullets.

In Ghostwalkers, a gun-for-hire, literally haunted by his bloody past, comes to the struggling town of Paradise Falls, where he becomes embroiled in a deadly conflict between the besieged community and a diabolically brilliant alchemist who is building terrible new weapons of mass destruction . . . and an army of the living dead!”

Let me say right here, right now, there will be spoilers. I have quite a bit to talk about with this particular book and I cannot fully express my thoughts without spoiling some things. So be aware of that.

I will however save some time and put a sort of “Too Long Didn’t Read” review right here: Deadlands: Ghostwalkers does a whole lot wrong, but there is the potential for a decent story here. If you are not a fan of the Deadlands universe I would avoid this book simply on the fact that its plodding, overly descriptive, and long-winded If you are a fan, its worth a read just to possibly get ideas for your own game, or to expand the world of Deadlands.

Now, for those who want my full thoughts, well, hold on to your butts as they say because its time to get down to business.

Firstly, I am partially familiar with the Deadlands universe. For those unaware its a tabletop RPG Campaign system and Game system. Its got a D20 version, a Savage Worlds version, and a standalone version. Its been years however since I read any of the rule-books

The Deadlands universe is best described as “Weird West”. Its an old west world where a cataclysmic event called the Great Quake ravaged California and left an area called The Maze there in its place, a region of rocky outcroppings where nothing can grow or live. It also unveiled the existence of Ghost Rock, a power source roughly 10 times as strong as coal. Further, demons, devils, undead, and weird science is the order of the day.

Deadlands: Ghostwalker follows a man named Grey Torrence and his eventual compatriot Thomas Looks Away, an exiled Sioux Indian and scientist who studies Geology. They make their way to the town of Paradise Falls in the Maze in an attempt to sort out who is trying to kill Looks Away, and end up working to save the town from a pair of nefarious land grabbers who apparently can control the undead.

The premise sounds promising, and its what drew me to request this book. And I honestly am appreciative of Macmillin-Tor/Forge for giving me this book to review. Especially when I am so new around the block.

However, I must confess that I am beyond disappointed with this slog. Because that’s what the book is: a slog. The pacing is absolutely horrid. For instance, the ebook copy I have is 418 pages. It takes until page 120 before our heroes Grey and Thomas get to Paradise Falls, which is when the plot actually starts picking up. 120 pages for something happen.

Now, granted, the book starts with Grey watching Thomas run from a posse chasing him, followed by a short action sequence where an explosion happens. Then we have pages and pages of exposition from Thomas to Grey, explaining about ghost rock, and its discovery, and weapons testing. This exposition follows an encounter with some Zombies by the way.

And lets talk about a particular line in the blurb at this point. “a gun-for-hire, literally haunted by his bloody past.” Yes, Grey is haunted by his past literally. It also nearly never comes up in the narrative. Ever. Grey a few times makes mention of his past and how he feels that he is being followed by the spirits of those he has killed, and a few others mention to him that he is not crazy, but that is literally it! When the zombies first appear I assumed it was said past coming back, but I was wrong.  EDIT: The past comes back at the tail end of the book.  Its literally the Chekov’s Gun of the book.

The only major occurrence that happens between the meeting of Thomas and Grey and reaching Paradise Falls is a sudden visit to a town called Fortune, that obviously is run by Vampire ladies. Grey and Thomas of course fall for the trick and get fed on, but they Grey has a strange vision from the head vampire lady who tells him that he is of the Martyr Tarot card, and thus does not belong to the living or the dead, and thus she and her sisters cannot take him. And of course he needs a companion so they leave him Thomas. The two wake up in the desert, their stuff mostly intact, the town dead to the world, and then they almost never speak of it again till the very end of the book.

Now, once it reaches Paradise Falls things start to pick up a bit. We get some action, some drama, and a few new characters such as Jenny and a priest whose name escapes me at the moment. We get to see some character growth for Grey as he and Jenny sort of hit it off.

But then things slow down again with more long winded descriptions. And its obvious the author is trying to convey a sense of hopelessness and horror but it really doesn’t work. A person does not need a detailed description of every tapestry in a mans basement or how they each depict violence on women. At one point Grey and Thomas are running in an underground room and there are 3 sentences the could be removed and the effect would be the same. The three sentences only describe how the shadows move and how the metal glows and such. But in the end its two men running down a path to the back of a room to open a door.

This sort of overly descriptive prose happens nearly constantly.

Another issue is inconsistent writing. There is one example that sticks out at me, so greatly that I actually copied it down.

A ghost is talking to Looks Away and Gray. The ghost is a former lover of Looks Away. He told her not to use his name Thomas as he did not trust her. The passage reads as follows:

“Good Lord”, said Looks Away faintly, “that’s quite… horrible.”
Veronica nodded. “For the love of you, my dear Thomas, I have come to you to tell you this. I came freely and willingly, even though I know I am abhorrent to your eyes. You look at me and you see only a wretched ghost But hear me, I beg.”
“We’re listening,” said Grey thickly, and he did not correct her on the use of his given name.

Do you see the issue? She is talking to Looks Away but Grey responds as if she is talking to him? And in the next bit she refers to Grey as “love”. And then everything corrects itself.

The other time I can recall is when Grey and Looks Away are fighting the first large group of Zombies in Paradise Falls. One of the zombies shows up and is obviously different. Less decayed, and with the ability to speak and shows intelligence. And somehow, Grey suddenly knows its called a Harrowed. It literally says that he suddenly gets a flash of insight and knows its a Harrowed.

This happens a few times later in the book and I can only hope such an issue is fixed prior to release, but at this point I am unsure if it could be.

There is also the issue of zombie dinosaurs. Yes, you read that right. Zombie dinosaurs. At around page 236 give or take the two men find a tunnel down into the depths under a manor house where one of the two mentioned villains had lived. And they run into a Zombie Raptor. Then several of those. Then Zombie Pteronodons. And then a Zombie Sabertooth Tiger. When this happened I literally put the book down and started laughing. It had jumped the shark! Well, the Raptor that is. The regular zombies that apparently were demons in human corpses were not enough, we had to involve dinosaurs

Apparently the main villain had access to prehistoric corpses. I can only assume that they were unearthed during the Great Quake and easily found in the Maze.

These are only some specific examples of issues I found in both the writing and the narrative. There is a good story here, sure. Its a fascinating romp in a world gone mad, where science has advanced with strange technology not of our world.

Also the action scenes are VERY well written. At these points the overly descriptive style fits as you can really get a feel of the ebb and flow of the scene. Nothing is more satisfying then a solid action scene.

The characters are another great point for the story. While Grey starts as a stereotypical “Gunslinger with a Haunted Past” he eventually starts to show flashes of nobility of spirit and heroism. Looks Away starts as an almost comical character with his British accent and overly scientific way of speaking, but later shows he has a hidden side. Jenny is a blast for the short time she is around, and the priest Brother Joe plays almost like the groups conscience.

Finally lets discuss the finale. The climax. Holy crap. This almost made up for everything. It was a solid battle sequence, followed by a passionate speech and some excellent action. It doesn’t save the book for me, but it did feel worth it when I finally got there. And the epilogue. Just…yea. While it was a bit of a chore to get to the ending, it was worth it I think.

Overall, I did not enjoy my time with this book. Its plodding overly descriptive nature marred what could have been a wild ride. I give it a 3/5. If you are a fan of epic westerns and don’t mind the pacing issues, give this a try. Deadlands fan’s should enjoy it quite a bit. I will admit my mind was changed at the end simply because of how everything came together.  But even still, I would not want to read this a second time.  And I am leery about any future books in this series.

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