“The Mortal Shackles” by Christopher A. Jos (8421 words)
No Spoilers: Quillen is the newest member of the Blood Spatter Gang, a violent force specializing in waylaying wagons and led by a somewhat eccentric woman named Augustine Fleur. Or, well, that’s his cover, at least. In reality he’s something much, much different, and on a mission on behalf of a very powerful Empire on the hunt for special people. The piece embraces its Western aesthetic, mixing in magic and a splash of larger plots churning in the background. The world building is deep, even as the plot and action are rather straight-forward. It’s a fun read, full of guns and treachery, magic and limitations. Quillen is reserved and fatalistic, hoping to fulfill his mission but not exactly caring too much about his own safety, which certainly makes for an eventful story.
Keywords: Westerns, Guns, Bandits, Transformations, Infiltration
Review: There’s a lot going on in this story, and yet for me the piece feels a bit like the top of the iceberg, the much larger mass concealed beneath the ice. Because for all that I think it does a good job of setting up the stakes and the characters, there are a great many unanswered questions about what’s really going on with Quillen and his masters. For the specific incidents involving Quillen and the gang, though, more backstory doesn’t seem entirely necessary, though it does leave a lot of questions and context that might have made some of the elements resonate a bit more, perhaps. For me, the story is much more about the boom and flow, about the ride of it. As a Western that’s completely okay, with Quillen as the down-and-out gunman who is trying to save a young woman kidnapped by a violent gang. There’s a lie sitting at the heart of that, though, and though Quillen is fighting against a violent gang, as the story goes on there’s the question of how good Quillen actually is. And how good he’s allowed to be. The reality of his situation doesn’t really become clear until more is learned about who and what he is. How he’s a member of a group of immortal soldiers who seem to be under the magical control of an Empire who is very concerned with expanding their ranks. This mission seems to be a recruitment drive, where Quillen is supposed to help capture someone who might make it through the very deadly initiation that will make her a Vicrosse Gunner like himself. He’s hiding throughout the story, magically altered to appear mortal, and perhaps that’s why he’s being nagged by old feelings, old memories. And a festering dissatisfaction with his life, even as he’s compelled to keep going, to keep fighting.
For me it’s a story that I fear needs a bit more context to land with its full weight. I like what’s here, and the prose is strong and builds tension as Quillen tries to push through his pain and own self-destructive urges. His own bristling resistance to his situation. But more than that it leaves me wishing I knew the story behind a lot of the other characters. It makes me want to know more about Quillen, too, and what he’s done in service to his Empire. How different he is from the boy he only vaguely remembers. And what life for him has been like since joining this new group. Without that, it’s hard for me personally to make up my mind what to think at the close of the story. Not that it’s not satisfying, but that the specific impact has been muted by my own distraction. Which, if you’re just in it for a good time, for a wild Western action adventure, then this will strike you just fine. For me, it feels just a bit incomplete, though I quite enjoyed what’s here. A fine read!