Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Book Review: The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl
By Tim Pratt
Bantam/Spectra Books 2005

Copyright © Bantam/Spectra Books

I love wandering through bookstores, always have, always will (sadly, it’s a habit the industry can no longer support as stores close in the age of e-books). Whether it’s a used bookstore full of dusty yellowed paperbacks and ex-library copy hardcovers or a superstore with shelves and tables overflowing with the newest books and repackaged reprints, I can easily get lost for a couple of hours if I’m not looking for anything specific.

Browsing through bookstores is like panning for gold. Some days you come up with nothing but dirt, other days you find something that turns out to be pyrite. If you’re tenacious, one day you just might find yourself shouting “Eureka!” And like those forty-niners of days gone by, there’s a personal triumph in striking gold—a thrill in the discovery of finding a book you’ve never heard of before, a book that wasn’t recommended to you by a friend or force fed to you through the hyperbole machine.

That’s what happened to me with The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. Weird Westerns are hard to come by to begin with, so when I saw the title on the spine, I was sold even before I looked at the cover and read the synopsis, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In modern-day Santa Cruz, California, Marzi McCarty is an art-school dropout, mixing lattes and espressos at the hip coffeehouse Genius Loci for her former classmates. Decorated with murals by the famous artist Garamond Ray, the café has become the nexus of the art student community. Ray himself disappeared in 1989 after a great earthquake, and the murals represent his last works and legacy.

Although she’s given up on the books and academia, Marzi is still very much the artist. Her comic book, “The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl,” has a small yet loyal following. The series chronicles the title character’s adventures in a mystical western landscape, and her encounters with her deadliest adversary, the shadowy sorcerer bent on desolation known simply as The Outlaw.

It was one of Ray’s murals, a desert motif sadly unavailable for patron viewing in the café’s storage room, which inspired Marzi to create her comic—and subconsciously tapped into her much deeper than she could ever imagine.

While her job keeps her among art student circles, Marzi’s only true friend is Lindsay, a flighty, party-loving girl who would love nothing more to see Marzi return to school, and to see her hooked up with Santa Cruz’s newest resident, an art grad student named Jonathan who’s writing a thesis on the works of Garamond Ray.

Romance is the last thing on Marzi’s mind between keeping café and comic book running, both of which become the focal point of some of the students’ sudden and inexplicable bizarre behavior. Beej believes that the coffeehouse is imprisoning an earthquake god, and he’s been charged with releasing it. Jane Canarray (a nod to Calamity Jane perhaps?), exhibiting the strange appearance and powers of a mud ghost (like one of Marzi’s comic book characters), is also convinced she must free an almighty being, but in her case it is a nature goddess. Denis Reardon, an obsessive-compulsive sculptor, who once dated Jane, finds himself dragged into her insanity against his will in order to protect a secret of his own.

Then The Outlaw starts appearing to Marzi, heralding his inevitable arrival in the real world. Marzi learns that by producing her “Rangergirl” comics, she has become the unwitting and unwilling warden of a malevolent entity determined to scourge the planet of its human infestation and return Earth’s natural landscapes. Trapped by Marzi’s imagination in the persona of The Outlaw, the entity only possesses enough influence to recruit Beej, Jane, and Denis as a gang to free him. Now, Marzi finds herself in the role of Rangergirl and with her posse comprised of Lindsay and Jonathan, the stage is set for a classic western style showdown with the fate of the world riding on the outcome.

Tim Pratt has a gift for description that brings his surreal fantasy to life, depicting a mystical western realm where you can feel the heat beating down on you, and teasing about plots and characters from a non-existent comic book you wish you could read. From the fun-loving frivolity of college students having a night out on the town to the slow-burning madness of those losing their grip on reality, Mr. Pratt gives readers a glimpse into each of his character’s psyches, bringing them into sharp focus as fully breathing human beings we either love or hate.

Unfortunately, with the exception of Marzi, the heroes turn out to be less likable—and certainly less interesting—than the villains. Lindsay in particular is rather annoying. She’s a pushy personality who comes across as more intrusive than supportive in her friendship with Marzi, such as when she invited herself along on Marzi and Jonathan’s date to cheer herself up. As a character, she just tries too hard to be liked. Sure, she has a couple of lines that make you grin, but if Lindsay is meant to be a comic relief sidekick, then she shouldn’t be upstaging the protagonist at every opportunity.

Jonathan doesn’t fare much better. He’s your typical tall, dark, and handsome stranger with an aura of mystery, and the implied romance between him and Marzi never really clicks. Maybe that’s because they’re rarely alone as Lindsay always seems to be hanging around like a third wheel.

However, the novel’s villains really get to shine. It’s fun watching Beej’s sanity disintegrate chapter by chapter, and Denis’ perfectly ordered (and imagined) sense of reality come apart at the seams. And despite its clichéd appearance, The Outlaw entity is a unique creation, a force of nature with malicious intent, possessing a hatred of humanity that is understandable from the natural world’s point of view.

Marzi is a believable heroine, whose heroism is hard won. The catalyst that fueled her imagination to create “Rangergirl” also exposed her vulnerabilities. Her journey to overcome her personal crisis and develop the strength to surpass her own creation and become a warrior in her own right is more heroic than her final confrontation against The Outlaw.

Now of course, I want to see an actual Rangergirl comic book. I believe there’s a lot of potential for an ongoing series. Mr. Pratt has created a world worth exploring with Rangergirl and her ghost horse Abacus (with a talent for arithmetic) facing down the likes of Comanche demons riding monstrous beasts, giant dung beetles, skeleton buffalo stampedes, rain barrel sea serpents, mad scientific rainmakers, and the ever present threat of The Outlaw wielding his Colt .45 Warmakers. Hopefully some comic book publisher will agree with me.

The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl is a fun, fantastic read that’s definitely a keeper on the shelves of my book corral.

Kudos must also be given to cover designer Jamie S. Warren Youll, cover illustrator Michael Koelsch, and book designer Helene Berinksy. From the Sergio Leone inspired visual close-up of Rangergirl’s hand hovering over her holstered gun with The Outlaw standing in the desert-colored distance and the Western-styled fonts to the faux creases and tears across the cover and the cowboy paraphernalia pictured throughout the book at the beginning of each chapter, this great looking novel was obviously put together with a lot of thought, care, and faith in the quality of Mr. Pratt’s story.