The Shotgun Arcana


I have some mixed feelings about The Shotgun Arcana. On the one hand, it gives us still more weird wild west with pirate queens, gunslingers, mad scientists, fallen angels, a gay Mormon superhero, and kung fu gangsters. On the other hand, I think it suffers a bit from middle book syndrome, and is inconsistent in its relativism. Mild plot spoilers follow.

While Six-Gun Tarot was almost purely Lovecraftian, Shotgun Arcana brings us back down to Earth by making big bad the Skull of Cain. The Skull inspires a diverse cult of murderers and cannibals loosely cribbed from pulp and penny dreadfuls. At first this is an interesting choice, with the argument that the genocidal horrors of the 19th century provided cover for serial killers. However it quickly gets eclipsed by a comic book plot.

Arcana nearly doubles the cast of characters in the cursed town of Golgotha. While Tarot devoted multiple chapters to character development, Tarot feels a bit thinner. Conflicts and conversations are telegraphed but never fully completed. Relationships lurch forward a few steps, and are put on hold pending the next novel. It’s a style of series writing that I find frustrating, as opposed to Bujold or Pratchett who rarely dependent on subplot cliffhangers.

Almost spoiling this for me is minor inconsistency in the series’s religious or magical relativism. As we’re told by multiple characters, Mormon relics, Confucian magic, Native American religion, and biblical angels all have their place in Golgotha. They’re all true, if differing in perspective. But then, we’re introduced to Thugee Batra the Kali worshiper. Later in the novel, we hear about Kali again, described as one of those horrors that go bump in the night. I’m going to punt to Leah Schnelbach’s essay on why Temple of Doom is bad theology (or history or social studies). It’s a rather egregious exception to the explicit universalism of the novel, especially if Lilith is introduced as a feminist religious figure.

Cartoon image of Kali.
Kali by Pixar artist Sanjay Patel

But if that’s not a dealbreaker for you, Shotgun Arcana offers a lot of weird wild west fun, with the promise of more to come.