Imagine a fantasy world that’s The Gunslinger meets Storm Riders meets Deadwood meets Afro Samurai meets The Wild Wild West (the series, not so much the movie) meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Django meets Brisco County meets House of Flying Daggers and more.
This is Far West.
Far West started as a kickstarter for a roleplaying game to be developed as a roleplaying game by Gareth-Michael Sharka and T.S. Luckart (Disclaimer: I contributed to said kickstarter). The kickstarter was wildly successful, successful enough that the creators decided to expand the universe of Far West beyond the scope of an RPG, to include other ways to engage the mashup universe described above than just a roleplaying game.
And, thus, Tales of the Far West.
Tales of the Far West is an anthology of stories set in the universe of Far West. Tales of the Far West includes the following stories:
“He Built The Wall To Knock It Down” by Scott Lynch: A down and out loser in a dying town learns excellence at the hands of a master.
“In Stillness, Music” by Aaron Rosenberg: A musician-messenger is the only thing that stands between a cattle baron’s greed and an innocent village.
“Riding The Thunderbird” by Chuck Wendig: Thunderbirds (large flightless birds) and the surprising lesson they teach a young girl.
“Purity of Purpose” by Gareth-Michael Skarka: Who seeks the secret of the Unsurpassed Weapons?
“Paper Lotus” by Tessa Gratton: A mystical story of a man and a girl’s strange request to carry a message.
“In the Name of the Empire” by Eddy Webb: A murder mystery, with the sheriff as the prime suspect.
“Errant Eagles” by Will Hindmarch: The ghosts of a gunslinger’s past catch up with him.
“Railroad Spikes” by Ari Marmell: The Cube meets The Great Train Robbery.
“The Fury Pact” by Matt Forbeck: An inventor’s son tries to live up to the family name.
“Seven Holes” by T.S. Luikart: What are demons, really? An apprentice finds out.
“Local Legend” by Jason L. Blair: A bounty hunter tells the story of dealing with a famous bandit.
“Crippled Avengers” by Dave Gross: A group of unlikely castoffs seek revenge against the steam baron who ruined them.
Given the wide variety and the mashup nature of the Far West universe, I expected more parallax and narrative drift between the stories. Much to my surprise and delight, the stories do work well together. There are very few links of any kind between the stories, but a couple of references here and there make it clear they all take place across the wide weird west of the Far West and there is certainly nothing that feels out of place along with the others.
I did particularly like the variety of styles, from quasi-ghost story, to abbatoir story, to character portraits. Sharka has done a bang-up job getting the talent he has to contribute to the anthology, and there isn’t a weak story in the bunch.
My favorites? I particularly liked Rosenberg’s story. I am already pondering roleplaying characters in the same society as the main character. Ari Marmell’s story is so gonzo and different than much of the rest of the set that I found it irresistable. And of course, the Scott Lynch.
Admittedly, Scott Lynch’s story is the anchor story for this collection. His story has kung-fu, gunplay and steampunk goodness, nearly all of the elements of the Far West in one package. Fans of his work can recognize his signature style and writing here, as the narrator and the rest of the losers meet the man who is about to change their lives, radically:
The night I met False Note, I got wound up and sent the game right off a cliff.
I’d love to blame it on that quiet stranger, waiting for whatever wind he thought was going to blow, but that’s not even a near-truth. I was drunk in the deadliest way, deep enough to be prickly but not deep enough to be numb and slow. I was in a bad humor, too, dwelling on the idiocy of my situation, grudging Timepiece those precious silver bits he scraped up even though I knew I’d probably chisel them back just as soon as he quit dealing.
“Hell, Timepiece, you’re already married to the secret of your success.” I took a long slow swallow of whatever Sload was passing off on us that night (lead sugar, vinegar, grep piss— gods knew) and it didn’t make me any smarter. “After all, ain’t like that arm of yours can get up and walk away whenever it wants to.”
That opened a hole in the conversation. Timepiece had gathered the cards and now he slotted them into his arm mechanism in groups of five or six, slowly and deliberately like a man feeding shells to a carbine. The ominous silence stretched and his bloodshot eyes were on me all the while.
“You got any inclination to clarify that remark?” he said at last, too softly.
“If you’re gonna keep that thing rigged up to four-flush us, don’t you think you ought to have the courtesy to vary the miracle every now and then? Maiden’s Tits, it’s more regular than the sun and the moons!”
With that, I broke the magic for good. When you’re sitting at a table like that, you can call one another scoundrels, murderers, grep thieves, ingrates, and fancy dancers of the cheapest persuasion. You can joke about being crooked as a general and constant state of affairs. But what you can’t do, what you can’t ever do, is accuse someone of cheating right then and there. Not unless you’re ready to play for blood.
Click. Timepiece shoved the last bunch of cards into his dealing mechanism. Sha-chock. The arm primed itself for the next deal. Timepiece still hadn’t taken his eyes off me. Hot Molly and Jozan Shung were giving me the stink-eye, too. They weren’t real tight with Timepiece, but they were sure tighter with him than with me. Somewhere behind the booze and bitterness my better judgment was waking up. Too late.
“Why, I do believe that touches on my honor, you skinny little serpent-tongued son of a bitch,” said Timepiece. Now he sounded downright jovial, but there was no mistaking what burned behind his eyes.
He reached out with his metal arm and took my just-emptied glass in its misshapen hand. Gears ground, pistons popped, and tinkling fragments rained on the table.
“How’s that for a new trick?” He got up slowly, like some range beast rearing up to make a show in front of its den, which I suppose is exactly what he was. His smile was wide and full of piss-yellow teeth. “You wanna see some fresh miracles out of this arm, you just step right outside and I’ll accommodate your godsdamned curiosity.”
“Well, uh, maybe I was a little hasty, Timepiece.” A little! Maybe water was a little wet and the sun was a little in the sky. My bad weeks in Ain’t That Something had made me careless. I’d fancied myself hard and ready for the world, but I had no arts for hurting folks, not even to stack up against cast-offs like Timepiece, Molly, and Jozan, and that realization was coming on awfully fast.
“Yeah, take it easy, Timepiece,” said Sload. I don’t know if it was the threat to my tender young self or the busted glass that got his attention. Probably the glass.
“He called me a cheat!” said Timepiece.
“He did not,” said the stranger.
It was like the shadows had decided to talk, or one of the sculptures. I mean, I’d guessed the stranger must have a voice of some sort. Hard to explain the tea otherwise. But he’d been wordless for so long, watching us, that he’d faded into the background for me. Timepiece seemed equally surprised at the man’s decision to quit making like wallpaper.
“Now that’s a novel interpretation of recent events.” Timepiece turned his back on me to address the mystery man. I should’ve been insulted, but it was a pretty fair assessment of the threat I posed.
“Cheating’s a marginal sin,” said the stranger, rising casually to his feet. All my first impressions of him came rushing back as he stepped into the light. That brown face had seen some weather, all right. That long hair was the color of a raven that had flown through falling ash. “He accused you of being artless. And that’s. . . much worse.”
“Mister, this ain’t your game, but you just dealt yourself in.” Timepiece lost his feigned joviality. Now his voice and his body matched what I’d seen in his eyes.
But there is much more to the Far West than a single Scott Lynch story, however good. And more than this anthology, too. If you are curious to learn more about a roleplaying world inspired by Wuxia, spaghetti westerns, and steampunk, or just want to read some stories in such a world, Tales of the Far West is definitely a good place to start.
I was born and raised in Staten Island, the forgotten borough of New York City. After a stint in California better glossed over, I've lived and worked for the last 8 years in the Great White North that is Minnesota. In the real world, I work at a mundane job having nothing to do with speculative fiction except when I ply my colleagues with SF references... On the other side of the veil, I've been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years. I started with Asimov, Bradbury, Vance, Tolkien and Fantasy, and have been hooked ever since. Over the last few years, I've been writing reviews of the books I read. My other genre love is roleplaying games, and I've been playing those for 25 years. I have been running the same play by email game for over 15 years (Strange Bedfellows), based on the Amber world of Roger Zelazny. I also play with local gamers, and go to the occasional gaming convention. Oh, and one day, I will actually write my trunk novel.