Short Story Review: “Hellfire on the High Frontier” by David Farland

5 of 5 stars.

Steampunk came of its own from the unlikely blending of historical fiction, sci-fi and fantasy first centered in London, and then it incorporated Paris, Berlin, New York, Tokyo and beyond. The steampunk western emerged as a rugged stepchild, with the lost American West as its backdrop and with equal parts naive optimism from fortune seekers and lawlessness from rogues and opportunists. This imaginative tale layers supernatural fantasy over the steampunk western to thrilling effect. It’s as unpredictable in plot as it is creative in genre and imagery.

Morgan, a Texas lawman haunted by his own activities in the American Civil War as part of Sherman’s March across the south, hunts a murderous Native American skinwalker well beyond his area of jurisdiction. But the skinwalker isn’t the only supernatural being around. A shadow creature requests Morgan to hunt a rogue clockwork gambler known as Hellfire that’d been killing every 4 months–to the minute:

Suddenly, The Stranger took form across the campfire, a shadow solidifying into something almost human, sitting on a rock.

Morgan had met him only once, seven years back: a man in a black frock, like a traveling preacher. He wore his Stetson low over his eyes and had a wisp of dark beard. The spurs on his boots were made of silver, with glowing pinwheels of lightning. The cigar clenched between his teeth smelled of sulfur. . .

Morgam suspected The Stranger was right. This gambler needed to be stopped. But killing a clockwork wouldn’t be easy. Their inner parts were shielded by nickel and tin, and you never knew where their vital gears hid . . . Clockworks were quick on the draw, deadly in their aim. The Stranger called this one a “gambler,” but clockworks had been created to be soldiers and guards and gunslingers.

“What brand is he?” asked Morgan.


Morgan ground his teeth. He’d hoped that it might be some cheap Russian model, built during the Crimean War. The Sharps clockworks had a reputation. Going up against one was almost suicide.

This would normally be the point in the tale where the hero manages to capture or kill first one outlaw and then the other, or figure out a clever way to pull off both tricks at once. But this tale is refreshingly original as the skinwalker eludes Morgan who turns his attention to the clockwork man. But the clockwork man has already escaped by dirigible to the High Frontier, a city among the clouds where feral angels are kept in cages and no rule of law exists. Hellfire holes up in a saloon, winning the money off wealthy vacationers. He has his own proposition for Morgan–a game for first shot.

[Morgan:]”You might be a better killer than me, but that don’t make you a better man.”

“When killing is all that matters, maybe it does,” the clockwork said . . . “Tell you what,” the gambler said. “Your legs are shaking. I won’t shoot you now. Let’s try the cards. I’ll draw for you.”

The gambler placed a fresh deck on the table, pulled a card off the top, and laid it upright. It was a Jack of Hearts. He smiled, as if in relief.

“I didn’t come to gamble,” Morgan said. “I came for justice.”

“Seeking justice is always a gamble,” Hellfire answered reasonably. “Justice doesn’t exist in nature. It’s just the use of force, backed up by self-righteous judgment.”

The gambler cut the deck, pulled off the top card, flipped it: the Ace of Spades.

“You win!” the gambler grinned . . .

This tale appears in Writers of the Future 32 edited by David Farland. It’s illustrated by artist, Rob Hassan. I received this new anthology from Netgalley.

[Check out my other reviews here.]


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