All quotes and references are from His Ragged Company, by Rance D. Denton, unless otherwise stated.
“The Magnate’s voice came with a warm wind of softness along the contours of my thoughts.”
Rance Denton has a way with words. A twisted way.
As a writer, I learned a lot, specifically from his explorations of time. The skips, flashes, loops, and the confusion that followed (all of it calculated) sometimes bordered on the experimental, which isn’t something you see too often in genre fiction. Between that and the almost episodic nature of the story’s first half, His Ragged Company is without a doubt the least formulaic novel I’ve read in years. It was a much needed reminder that it is in fact perfectly acceptable to strip back the conventions of (western) literature and tell your story however you damn well please because it is yours.
As a reader, His Ragged Company felt very much like being dragged down a rabbit hole full of dark, ritualistic magic that I’d be tempted to call Lovecraftian if I’d ever bothered to read Lovecraft. Denton describes magic in tactile terms, which makes it so visceral I found myself wincing more than once. The more esoteric descriptions of different planes of existence, otherworldly experiences, and spiritual realms shine most when Faust (the protagonist) relates them to things he can understand.
“Chained to the wall, the corpse might as well have been a curtain.”
While the supernatural elements are skilfully woven into Faust’s everyday life, it was the way everyday life kept bleeding right back into the supernatural moments that truly blew me away.
Contrasting with the more descriptive moments of existential horror were scenes of camaraderie full of energy and witty banter, delivered by a remarkably diverse cast of characters. The chemistry was through the roof, whether it was between marshal Elias Faust and Shakespearian crack-shot Grady Cicero, between fight club owner Miss (Not Mrs.) Lachrimé Garland and supernatural, metal-skinned Nycendera, or between Peggy Winters and whichever lowlife had the misfortune to meet her fists.
Elias Faust, had me intrigued at “Breathe.” He had me endeared at “If you think getting shot is painful, believe me, getting un-shot is a lot worse.” And he had me head-over-heels-would-take-a-bullet-for-this-man-not-that-he’d-need-me-to at “Mrs. Fulton, you mind if my friend Cicero goes and talks with your children until your husband wakes up?”
Aside from the rough edges you expect from a town marshal of the American Frontier, Faust is unapologetically human. You don’t even have to dig far to find his humanity, which is something I’ve always found lacking in the “disillusioned, grizzled hero” trope. Faust’s readiness to feel so strongly – and to admit that he does – is not only crucial to the plot, but also crucial to the character. He feels empathy, sympathy, and overwhelming fear. He cries. And he cares deeply about people, justice, and agency.
This separates him from the crowd of emotionally-stunted macho types you usually see gallivanting around Wild West settings. I was at times reminded of Captain Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (Terry Pratchett, The Discworld series).
All in all, His Ragged Company was a blast, and a read I’m not likely to forget. Denton’s debut already has a distinct voice, and – perhaps more importantly – a genuine heart. I can see both getting better and better as the adventures of Elias Faust develop. I’ll gladly come along for the ride.