The first Watt O’Hugh novel, The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2011 and also won Best Fantasy Novel in The Indie Excellence Awards 2012. Now, the acclaimed novel is being re-released, along with the second part of the tale of mysterious shootist and time roamer Watt O’Hugh, Watt Underground, which both clarifies some of the mysteries from Ghosts and continues revealing pieces of Watt’s story for curious readers. With so much fanfare about the original novel, I was uncertain whether it would live up the hype, and, sadly, for me, while Ghosts is a well-crafted, unique piece, I was left mostly unmoved and slightly baffled. I personally found Watt Underground a more enjoyable read, and it almost felt like a decoder ring for some of my confusion from the first book.
In The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, through a series of peculiar events, Watt O’Hugh is falsely accused of a crime of passion and sentenced to time in a 19th century Wyoming correctional facility. The former orphan gets sucked into a plot to save Earth from the weird, rage-fueled magic of the Red Eyebrows, which Daryl Fawley, the man who stole Lucy (Watt’s most sincere love), has tapped into to create a mystical utopia known as Sidonia. Our hero initially is coerced into pledging loyalty to his cause, but by the end of the novel, Watt’s hatred for Sidonia has become personal. Watt Underground continues his quest against Sidonia but also fleshes out some of the other major players in anti-Sidonia movement.
The Watt O’Hugh novels take one part Western, one part dime novel, one part SF/fantasy, and one part author Steven S. Drachman’s imagination and historical research and throw them all into a blender to create something with a slightly strange aftertaste, but that is decidedly unique. Although both novels are fairly short (around 225 pages on average), I wouldn’t classify them as easy reads, since there is often so much happening that I almost felt like I needed some sort of chart to keep track of everything. Unfortunately, Ghosts presents material at such a disjointed, frenetic pace that I was at a loss for the crux of the story until I read Watt Underground, which briefly retells the most salient points from Ghosts as explanation for the fresh material; however, readers that don’t mind non-linear, stream of conscious plot lines will find Ghosts extremely satisfying, and I cannot deny that I’ve never read anything quite like it.
For me, Watt isn’t a relatable narrator, because the closest I’ve come to reading a Western is watching snippets of Lonesome Dove and the remake of True Grit. The story isn’t heavily character-centric anyway; the action seems to just happen to Watt rather than being actively pursued. By Watt Underground, our hero creates more of his own story, but he is still a bit of a cipher in a fictional world peopled by intensely driven individuals.
Drachman really shines when he blends history into his fictional world, and his careful research shows. His depiction of a train robbery in Watt Underground felt realistic for the time period, although I am hardly an expert, and when I fact checked the NYC Draft Riots and JP Morgan, the basic data rang true. (Drachman admits he massaged some details to fit his story line, but given he studied first before doing so, I can’t fault his technique.) I also appreciated the examination of prejudices in Post-Civil War 19th Century America, especially against Chinese immigrants, although Watt often showed a little too much of the famous cowboy acceptance (if they can do the work who cares what color they are). Some historical inclusions such as Oscar Wilde seem a little forced, but the basic spirit of the flamboyant author came through.
Overall, I strongly preferred Watt Underground to The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, but every reader will have a different experience with the novels because of their unique flair. If you enjoy Westerns, SF, or just want to read a few books that aren’t set in yet another dystopian landscape, give the Watt O’Hugh novels a try. You just may find a new favorite author, and Watt’s adventures aren’t over just yet.
4 Enormous and Threatening Sand Crabs out of 5