Review: Once Upon A Time in the Weird West Anthology: Speculative Fiction with a Western Twist by Various Authors

This isn’t the same old Wild West. The usual suspects are all present: cowboys, outlaws, and sheriffs. There’s plenty of dust, tumbleweeds, horses, and cattle on the range, but there are also magical gems, automatons, elementals, airships… even dinosaurs and genetically modified insects. Roaming among the buffalo and coyotes, you’ll encounter skinwalkers, mad engineers, mythical beings cloaked in darkness, and lovers who stay true to their oaths… even beyond the grave. On this frontier are those at the mercy of their own elaborate devices as well as men whose control of time and space provides a present-day vision of the West. There might even be a dragon hidden amongst the ghost towns and wagon trains.

If you like your Westerns with a splash of magic, a touch of steampunk, and plenty of passionate romance between men, these genre-bending tales will exceed expectations.

Hold on to your hats, cowboys and cowgirls. The West is about to get weird, and you’re in for a hell of a ride.

This anthology spoke to every little bit of me as a reader.

The dedication should have said:

Dear Peach, 

This book and everything in it was written with just you in mind. 

You’re welcome. 

Also, you are very pretty. 

Love and hugs, 

The Weird West 

And it freakin’ delivered! Everyone knows that not every store in an anthology can be 5 star for every reader, that’s a completely unrealistic expectation and goes against the very nature of bringing so much variation together. That’s what I love about anthologies myself, the variation on a theme and all the perspectives. Sure, you win some, you lose some, but along the way you’ll read an author that’s new to you and you hit up their backlist and if something doesn’t appeal to you, you can move along to the next without investing too much time.

This anthology? SO MUCH GOOD STUFF. I didn’t rate each story individually because the reasons some didn’t appeal to me as much as a few others were for no real reason other than personal preference, so I gave my reasons, but those may not mean squat to you and that’s as it should be. There are some really amazing stories here and I hope you give them all a go.

Reaper’s Ride by Astrid Amara 
This take on the Grim Reaper was the perfect start to this anthology and I was hooked and hooked hard from the get go. The author’s tale on how the reapering worked in the old west and the tie to the Pony Express was very interesting and damn clever. There was plenty of detail without being overly complex which can be a tough balance for a short story, but Reaper’s Ride made it happen. There also had to be enough background for each MC so that I could buy into their connection and Johnny’s sacrifice for Sye. And the author did it with a heavy emphasis on the showing and not the telling. I really loved this one and the ending made me all happy. Of course I was completely freakin’ stressed there for a bit, but the redemption Johnny was able to get on his ride made it all worthwhile.

Wild, Wild Heart by Shira Anthony
Wild, Wild Heart has a steampunk theme mixed in and it’s a well done blend because the steampunk angle is more steampunk-lite keeping the focus on the characters and their connections. Al has had a tough and lonely existence until his master is able to strengthen his heart with the aid of mechanics. Al was devastated when his master passed away, and has resigned himself to a limited existence and a shortened lifespan. He rescues a young gunslinger one day and Clay becomes a fixture in his life bringing him some companionship and happiness. Cyrus’ past comes back to exact some revenge and Al ends up damaging his mechanical heart in the process of defending Cyrus. Al may have never trained Cyrus to become his apprentice, but Cyrus was always watching and paying attention. He’s the only one who can save Al’s heart and I loved the tension the author worked into the repair of Al’s heart, both mechanical and human. The whole procedure, as told by both MC’s made the story and made me buy into an HEA for these two.

Dr. Ezekiel Crumb’s Heavenly Soul Purifying Elixir by Lex Chase 
This one was very unique with some fantastical parts and pieces mixed into a seemingly simple setup. The start with Ezekiel’s traveling medicine show was a great setup and I liked how the author had the backstory of Ezekiel/Elias and Levi evolve throughout the story. Their reunited bond got stronger as it went on and I loved reading their love as they revealed it to one another again. I wasn’t sure if I’d like Ezekiel in the beginning, I mean, he’s basically a snake oil salesman, he’s not supposed to be a sympathetic character, but as the story came out, my heart hurt for what he went through and it made complete sense why he buried Elias to survive as Ezekiel. There was definitely a more heavy paranormal element to this one and I appreciated how the author kept up the theme with the medicine until the end. There was enough, but at the same time, not enough of Levi’s history. It was a pretty big concept for a short story, and while there was nothing left hanging, the tease piqued my interest on what more there could have been.

Corpse Powder by Jana Denardo 
Oh, this story fit in deliciously with the Weird West. It had all manner of elements that could have been too much but turned out to be just right. There were steamships, magic, faith, skinwalkers and then a quiet, true love between two very different men. Isaac is a doctor who survived the war but saw way too much and is having trouble finding his faith again. He moved to Virginia City because of the large Jewish community and promise of a job. The job fell through because of the greedy bastard who is the town doctor currently who reneged on his offer and so Isaac is a little rootless. He meets Tsela Zahni, a Native American shipman whose airship is attacked by pirates. Isaac comes to help the wounded and the two men form a bond of friendship and respect that slowly grows as the story progresses. I really liked these two together and could appreciate their connection from the beginning. Tsela’s past comes back to exact revenge and the action was good stuff as he and Isaac battled the baddies so they could have a future together.

The Sheriff of Para Siempre by Jamie Fessenden 
This was a sublime piece of storytelling. It broke my heart and the bittersweet ending couldn’t have been any better. The Sheriff of Para Siempre is told from Joe Brady’s POV as he and his lover Billy Slade try to eke out a living in the harsh landscape of New Mexico. Billy is one of the fastest gunmen in the area and their travels take them to Para Siempre where Billy becomes the town sheriff and Joe is his deputy. Para Siempre is basically a ghost town that refuses to die. There is just enough in the mines to keep the diehards there and it’s a perfect opportunity for the Cassidy brothers to take advantage of the men who are left in town. Billy does his job as sheriff, but the Cassidy’s don’t fight fair and the absolute worst happens. It’s just so damned sad and you would think the story would be over, but Joe and Billy’s lives in Para Siempre have many, many more years to go. The tales turns beautifully creepy at this point and one simple statement that Billy made to Joe around the campfire before they made it to Para Siempre turned out to be a prophecy neither of them could have seen coming. The Epilogue was exactly what an epilogue should be. It told the end of the story from another perspective and given the otherworldly aspect of Billy and Joe by this point, the balance and that bit of distance were perfect. I’ll be rereading this story.

The Tale of August Hayling by Kim Fielding 
The Tale of August Hayling is a unique offering to the Weird West and I enjoyed the difference very much. August is a big bear of a man and what he lacks in book smarts he more than makes up for in common sense and insight. August is somewhat ‘between jobs’ and is hired by a stranger in the saloon to come help him bring back a fortune in gold. August is somewhat skeptical, but it’s not like he has anything to lose, so off he goes. He quickly learns his employer is on a completely different mission that has been continuing on for centuries. Turns out Georgios, (the employer) has been battling a dragon (who shifts into a man) for basically ever and the dragon is SO over this nonsense. The cycle never seems to end because Georgios won’t give up. August and the dragon, Sarkany, hit it off pretty quickly and August has been alone entirely too long to give up the opportunity for some happiness. It’s a quick trip to love, but I really liked August and given his life and somewhat bleak future, I couldn’t nitpick over the timeline, I just was happy he was happy.

Time Zone by Andrew Q Gordon
Time Zone keeps us in the West but leaves the past behind for a modern setting. I liked finding a different period in here, it helped keep the stories fresh which was good because I loved binge reading this book. Wesley Blake, I would say, is somewhat comparable to an X-Men character. He can manipulate time and was tapped to become a field agent for the Department of Gifted Americans. He’s a bit of a maverick and doesn’t let anyone get too close to him. His past heartbreak makes him keep his distance and the only consistent ‘person’ in his life is his handler Lothar who he has never even met in person. He gets a new partner, Eric, and the two of them begin training for a mysterious and dangerous assignment. Eric was a really good guy and I liked his character very much. He’s a perfect partner for Wes, and the two of them begin to forge a tenuous friendship. Romance is not in their cards though as Wes is carrying a torch for the one man he knows he can never have and it was so sad to read his hopelessness. It’s why he throws himself into his work and when the assignment starts to go sideways Wes is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice as he feels like he’s got nothing to lose. I loved the ending and it was just right for a short story. Wes’ future is going to be interesting and I’d love to read a full story with these characters if the author decided to keep this one going.

Get Lucky by Ginn Hale
On the surface, a story about gunslingers, mages, Pinkerton’s and dinosaurs and a one-eyed crocodile should be ridiculous, but the author turned this into an intense piece of storytelling and the story had me hooked from the beginning. Lucky is somewhat ironically named and his life has been pretty rough up until now. He has his one way out years ago and his lover never came for him, skipped town and left Lucky behind. Or did he? That’s the great twist in Get Lucky. There was plenty of action while still time for Lucky and Dalfon to reconnect believably. The two plot lines worked in conjunction and moved the story along towards the two MC’s HEA. The package is wrapped up very neatly and with an air of fairy tale magic as everything perfectly possible happened for Lucky, but he’s had a really rough go, so he deserved every little bit.

From Ancient Grudge to New Mutiny by Langley Hyde 
This retelling of the Shakespearean feud between the Capulets and the Montagues (in this case, the Caplins and the Montgomerys) is a great idea and I liked how the author took it and made is work with the overall theme of the anthology. It’s as if the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s had rare magical stones to fight over and two young sons that fell in to a love that was doomed from the beginning. The story read a little choppy at times as there was a lot going on with little nuggets of backstory reference thrown in at the same time. I didn’t get a chance to connect with James and Frank’s history and I think that was the only thing I was missing. I did like the ending very much and wish I could have had a little more balance on the MC’s perspective of their outcome and what it meant to them to finally be together.

POMH by Venona Keyes 
The world building in POMH started out really well. The interaction between the MC and the rest of the cast gave a good feel as to who Lorem was and his motivations for his inventions. I loved reading the interaction between he and his friends, especially his mentor Chron. Lorem needs an apprentice himself, pretty badly and decides to build one of his own after finding a valuable red prism. I was just getting into it and was looking forward to how the backstory was going to tie together with the Lorem’s invention. See, Lorem had the perfect apprentice lined up pre-story but he was killed in a gruesome accident and I was anxious to read about the lost perfect apprentice and the invention coming together while defeating the greedy baddy. Unfortunately the buildup just kind of petered out there, it was as if time ran out, so magic had to happen to pull it together and I was kind of bummed. The buildup had been really good and then ‘poof’ it was done.

Oh, Give Me a Home by Nicole Kimberling 
Space cowboys FTW you guys!
This is easily one of my favorites in this anthology, the world building and all the subtle bits that built the environment for Henry and Gordon were some of the best I’ve read in a long time. Gordon and Henry are an established couple but the author works in their backstory easily through Gordon’s memories. The two of them are complete opposites but it’s obvious how well they complement one another. Because they are already an established couple there isn’t all the getting-to-know you delicious tension, but the subtle banter and memories serve to fill all that space with something even better because their relationship was built up for me just right. I appreciated the snark that comes along with an established couple and still swooned at the consideration they showed for one another given their differences. The action was tense and yet still fun to read at the same time. I’ll definitely be looking for more from Nicole Kimberling.

Gunner the Deadly by C.S. Poe 
Gunner the Deadly is a total kick and then completely romantic at the end. The story of unlikely allies who are total opposites is teeming with the fun kind of action that’s full of snark and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s exactly how I like my action. The setup is well done without being overly complicated so the focus on the MC’s growing attraction had equal footing with all the steampunky shenanigans. Gunner is a mystery that Gillian and I couldn’t get enough of, he’s pretty charismatic for a total enigma and as Gillian untangles the legend he can’t help but dig on everything about the man that he discovers. The end is perfectly perfect. Subtle and sweet and completely Gunner. I loved it. 

After the Wind by Tali Spencer
Tali Spencer is a master at world building, if you haven’t read her words before, trust me on this one, she totally owns that skill so hard. After the Wind tells a complete story and leaves nothing hanging, but man I just wanted more. I was totally fascinated and would love to have a whole novel based on the setup here. There is SO much here that could fuel a whole series and I would be all over it. The idea of weirdlings being persecuted for their powers and basically being poached for their parts was a horrifyingly fascinating setup with entirely too much  that can be tied to human history, it’s pretty sobering to be honest. Micah is a great character and I would love to have more backstory for him as well as the rest of the folks on Win’s ranch as well as the Comanches and their whole connection with the Wind. Micah’s interest in Rain is more than just as a rescuer, but he also recognizes Rain’s past and respects his new found freedom. The ending had them beginning to find their balance and while I’m sure there is an HEA in store for them, I would have loved to have read every detail of their new relationship.

WHEW, that’s a lot of me running my yapper. Enjoy the weirdness!

For more information on Once Upon a Time in the Weird West, and to get your copy, check it out at Dreamspinner Press.

**a copy of this story was provided for an honest review**

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