Author: Stark Holborn
Mood: If you’re totally over the usual Western storylines and desperate for something ‘holy’ different.
Sometimes a book was meant to find you. That’s how it was with Nunslinger.
I’d just finished The Cold Dish, the first in the Longmire series. Although it wasn’t necessarily bad, it definitely left me leaning back toward fantasy or Sci-Fi for my next read. But then my brother handed me this huge, patchouli-smelling paperback he’d found at the thrift store.
Almost everything about it made me cringe:
- It’s 613 pages long, giving me vibes of my most-hated Western saga
- I don’t read religious stories
- The negative Goodreads reviews say it’s super repetitive, which is a pet peeve
- My copy smells like f*cking patchouli
Well. Glad I got over that, because Nunslinger is an immensely satisfying and expansive adventure, the likes of which I haven’t experienced since the Bloody Jack YA series.
The plot does occasionally get a little soapy and convenient – but the story remains somehow both ruggedly Western and agonizingly chaste and I’m so here for it. It’s like if Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins told a Louis L’Amour story through her lens and then it became a book, if you can wring a lick of sense from that.
Nunslinger begins in 1864. Visitandine nun Sister Thomas Josephine is on a wagon train that’s attacked, and she’s taken hostage by a gruff outlaw named Abraham Muir. Hot on their trail is a dashing Union lieutenant, Theodore Carthy, hellbent (pun intended) on rescuing Sister TJ… or so it seems.
What follows are sweeping tales of coast-to-coast action, adventure, survival, suffering, romance, horseback chases, shootouts, murders most foul, and no shortage of narrow escapes from the hangman’s noose.
It’s not even possible to explain the plot further. Nunslinger was originally released as a series of 12 eBooks, and the paperback is the complete collection of those works – each with a subplot for a different leg of this epic journey. So you get the easy reading of short stories, but with a continuous, fast-paced storyline that keeps you eagerly flipping to the next book.
And that right there’s a winning combination for me and my short attention span.
Most of you are probably thinking WHAT THE HELL is a nun doing in a Western? And I definitely thought the same thing when I first picked it up.
It turns out a nun is actually the perfect Western protagonist. Sister TJ is used to wanting nothing, living off even less, and never complaining about pain or discomfort. She’s highly driven and goal-oriented, resourceful, and comes with the bonus of medical training.
And that shit comes in handy when she’s patching up everyone from soldiers and lawmen to the people she’s shot (always for good reason), outlaws, and the crass yet endearing Muir.
This guy is your classic Western antihero. He doesn’t say much, but when he does it’s a gruff snap or snarl, and he’s prone to outbursts of violence. He’s a deserter who’s happiest on horseback, and will do whatever it takes to save his own ass. Yet within a few ‘books’ you are rooting for Muir every bit as much as for Sister TJ.
Just realized I’m basically describing Jonah Hex and I clearly have a type.
There are plenty of truly bad people in Nunslinger, but Lieutenant Carthy somehow makes your skin crawl worse than any of them. I think it’s because you read these horrible things about him and his physical descriptions become increasingly repulsive, yet you’re always being told that Sister TJ is drawn to him and he also gets weird moments of hopefulness and redemption.
But honestly, he always gave me the NO feeling.
That’s actually a theme throughout Nunslinger: that no human is wholly good or bad. Sister TJ encounters people who are varying degrees from bad to worst, but as soon as they help her she goes along with them and you’re like wait, that person is a murderer or attacked her or whatever so why the hell are we now having normal conversations? But she firmly believes that nobody is beyond salvation, and you start to realize you’re agreeing with her.
The best character besides Muir is Owl, the Indigenous woman who drifts in and out of the books as this knife-wielding badass with her own mission. She doesn’t become a sidekick or offer sage advice or anything cheesy like that; in fact, you can’t even say for certain that they’re friends.
It’s like she doesn’t even need this story, she just happens to stop by occasionally for our enjoyment.
And Owl is just one of the fascinating smaller characters who keep you entertained – and from getting burnt out on the deep thoughts and simmering longings of Sister TJ and Muir.
Although I was fully engaged with Sister TJ’s journeys, both physical and with her faith, I’ll admit that somewhere around page 400 of Nunslinger I started to feel like she was willfully endangering people and being a bit selfish. And I didn’t really buy that she would go to such extremes for the mortal souls of TWO men, at the cost of countless others who needed her ‘work’ literally everywhere she paused to catch her breath.
But. The final books are strong and Nunslinger goes out with a bang. The writing throughout is so good that I’ve already ordered another book by author Stark Holborn (a pseudonym that hides their true identity), and I’m not even into space operas but I legit trust that I’ll like whatever they write.
Holborn has a true gift for descriptive writing. There’s SO MUCH powerful description here, yet it’s not excessive and it’s not self-indulgent. You just get these vivid passages of such detail that you’re right there next to the characters.
Writing action is super hard. You need enough description to bring the scene to life, but not so much that it slows the pace. The reader needs to feel like exciting, thrilling, or terrifying shit is going down in real time, and that’s another area where Holborn excels. I could picture every moment of this book like it was playing on a big screen.
Honestly, I’ve never had such a massive book go by so quickly.
I’m not saying it’s perfect. I can see how speedy readers might find things about Nunslinger repetitive – each ‘book’ has a beginning that sets up a challenge, a ton of action, and an open-ended conclusion with either an escape or a capture. And by the end I was like why are we still talking about Carthy, he’s so five books ago and is he really worth stealing time away from thinking about Muir?
But these stories were meant to be consumed as a series. If you take your time, they are a friggin’ fantastic Western adventure unlike any I’ve read before.