Thanks to Mike Finn’s Fiction for this review. It’s awesome.
‘West Of Prehistoric’ is an entertaining, action-packed ride that manages to twist the Weird West tropes into some new and intriguing shapes.
Even though this is a book where we have dinosaurs and vicious Neanderthal warriors roaming around in Wyoming in 1888, Erik Testerman manages to make the book feel like an authentic alternative history. He achieves this partly through the character of Jedidiah Smith who is very much a man of his times and proud of it and partly by making the book a portal fantasy. The first half of the book sets up the conflict that’s to come and establishes Jedidiah’s personality and motivations. Jed is a man with a violent past. His childhood came to a traumatic end when he was tortured by a rogue carpetbagging Union officer at the end of the war between the States and who ended up fighting in western wars and running with an outlaw gang. He’s a solitary sort of man, who follows his own code, lust after fine guns and thinks that nothing is more attractive than a fine woman with a rifle in her hands. Jed is starting to succeed in his plan to put his past behind him and make an honest living as a rancher when a dinosaur turns up on his land and tries to eat his horses.
Yeah, I know. I was thinking ‘How likely is that?‘ but every time I responded to what I learned about the dinosaurs by saying, ‘Nah, that couldn’t happen because…’ Erik Testerman provided a plausible explanation that let me move on happily. The big thing here is that ‘West Of Prehistoric’ is a Portal Fantasy, not a ‘Lost World’ scenario. The dinosaurs and Neanderthals aren’t our dinosaurs and Neanderthals, they’re from the other side a portal to a different world. This gives the story a different scope. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about it is that, unlike our Neandertals who are often characterised as going extinct because homo sapiens were more aggressive and made better tools, these Neanderthals are very aggressive and scarily efficient.
This is an action-packed book, where the danger and the violence start with Jed having to find a way to kill a huge dinosaur that’s trying to kill him and escalates from to skirmishes with armed groups and then a full set-piece battle with the townsfolk, some celebrity visitors and a small group of soldiers making a stand against a Neanderthal army, some of whom are mounted on dinosaurs. The battle scenes are vivid and the Neanderthals are truly scary, even when faced with the highest tech weaponry that the late Nineteenth Century could provide.
Jed loves guns and the book has plenty of them. I liked that when Jed describes a repeater rifle or a colt handgun or a Gatling gun, they come across as powerful, modern weapons rather than as antiques with less firepower than the average twenty-first-century active shooter.
The humour in the book improved my enjoyment of it. It stopped it from being too earnest or too depressing. It also prevented situations from being clichéd. Jed’s views are conservative (for an ex-criminal and revenge killer) and he is the man telling the tale, but the people around, who are often larger-than-life examples of Wild West characters, tend to smile at his determined politeness, his formality around women and his instincts towards valour in the face of danger.
At its heart, this book is an adventure, filled with danger and courage and conflict. It’s always clear who the bad guys are and how they should be dealt with . The good guys aren’t saints but they’re trying to do the right thing and they’re brave enough to fight to keep as many people alive as possible. The fights and battles feel real. There’s lots of blood and lots of death but none of it is gratuitous.
I had a good time with ‘West Of Prehistoric’. If you want to escape to an alternative West and see what happens when cowboys (and Indians) have to fight dinosaur-riding, blood-thirsty Neanderthals, try ‘West Of Prehistoric’. If you like it, there are two more books in the series.