Monday, 4 August 2003

The Return of Santiago

Mike Resnick
Tor Books
ISBN: 0-765-30224-1

Danny Briggs is a small-time thief on a planet run by the rigid, totalitarian democracy. When things get too hot for him, he flees to the Inner Frontier, inadvertently stumbling across the original manuscript for a poem immortalising the greatest of that lawless area's characters, the infamous Santiago.

Reading the poem, Danny realises the outlaw's greatest secret: Santiago was no villain but a revolutionary who devoted his life to fighting the Democracy and ensuring the freedom of the Inner Frontier.

With the Democracy beginning to gather its forces once more, Danny realises the time has come for Santiago to return and begins a search that draws the attention of some of the most dangerous and notorious figures in the galaxy. Flitting from planet to planet in a whistle-stop tour of the Inner Frontier, each step takes him closer to his goal. Meanwhile, he has to deal with bounty hunters and policemen determined to bring him to justice any way they can.

Though technically a sequel, ‘The Return Of Santiago’ stands up well by itself, avoiding the unqualified references to previous characters and events that would make reading the original a necessity. On top of that, the quality of Resnick's writing combined with a light subject matter and limited depth makes this book extremely easy to read, if not exactly a page-turner.

'Space-opera' is an inadequate way of describing the feel of this novel but like that genre it has a mild, light-hearted feel to it, one greatly reinforced by the lack of any graphic sex or violence. There is no grit, no great attempt at realism and while this makes it more readable, it also makes it more forgettable. There is no hard SF, no explanation of how the technology works, it is simply there in the background.

If I had to classify ‘The Return Of Santiago’, it would be as a 'space-western'. Once Danny enters the Inner Frontier every sentence cries out for a Stetson to be cocked rakishly over one eye, and to be fair to Mike Resnick his description is very good, creating scenes straight out of 'A Fistful of Dollars'.
The characters are even named as cowboys and Indians: the One-Armed Bandit, the Rough Rider, Virgil Soaring Hawk and many more. Together with the saloons, casinos and gunfighters that litter the Inner Frontier, this combines to make a rather enjoyable setting that pokes sly fun at the Western genre, though I began to find Resnick's vast overuse of the word 'formidable' as a character description extremely annoying.
Unfortunately ‘The Return Of Santiago’ suffers from the same problem as the westerns it parodies, which is that its characters lack any real depth. Understandable really, as a good proportion of the individuals Danny Briggs meets are killed in the chapter they're introduced in - and these ain't long chapters.

However, with the exception of the hero Danny Briggs even those characters who survive long enough to properly influence the plot are only minimally fleshed-out, their motivations unexplained. As such, the twists in the tale sometimes seem unreasonable as the individuals involved switch sides and change their minds for no apparent reason.

While the ending of ‘The Return Of Santiago’ seemed obvious after the first quarter of the book, there were several points where that ending was in doubt and the heroes seemed doomed. How do you defeat the invincible gunman? Simple, find a better one.

So a certain amount of deus ex machina was unavoidable but thankfully kept to a minimum. Unfortunately, as in most westerns, the outcome of each showdown between gunslingers was obvious long before one fighter hit the dirt and I found that sense of inevitability robbed each scene of a great deal of suspense.

A light piece of work, ‘The Return Of Santiago’ was enjoyable enough but unexceptional. True, it was fun to see cowboys in space but the lack of any real depth to the characters and a predictable plot spoils an interesting concept. Still, it was pleasant enough to read and mildly entertaining. ‘The Return Of Santiago’ will find a place on my 'for a rainy day' shelf.

This review was originally written for