Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Black Hills by Dan Simmons (unabridged audio book read by Erik Davies and Michael McConnohie)

Sometimes a book is simply so good that it exceeds my ability to write about it. Everything I write sounds dumb because it's just superlative, superlative, superlative, and it all gets redundant after a while. And often the best books are hard to summarize because so much happens in them that trying to outline it with any semblance of thoroughness is likely to give away surprises.

As you've probably guessed by now, Black Hills is one of those books. Dan Simmons is one of the most interesting authors writing today. You just never know what to expect from him, and his three most recent novels show this most admirably. They display the potentials of historical fiction in a way usually unseen in the work of a single author.

The Terror was pure horror about a stranded ship and the mysterious creature that stalks it, and Drood was a thriller concerning Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Both were distinctly British.

Then came the last thing I expected: a Western. But Black Hills is really only part Western, with a twist. The opening is instantly engaging. As Paha Sapa, an 11-year-old Lakota whose name means "Black Hills" (a rare event as Lakota are almost never named after sacred locations), "counts coup" on the dying George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in the summer of 1876, the ghost of the infamous commander invades the young Sioux.

Almost instantly, his head is soon filled by Custer's remembrances of his sexual dalliances with his beloved wife Libby. Custer's spirit fills Paha Sapa's nights with recitations (in the unfamiliar language of the whites) of all his memories. (If you ever wanted to hear a poetic play-by-play of Custer's dalliances with his wife, this is the book for you.) Paha Sapa will hear Custer's voice in his head for most of the rest of his life.

Black Hills jumps around in Paha Sapa's life, covering his name-change to Billy Slow Horse and Billy Slovak, his courtship with the beautiful Rain, his strife to solely destroy the three faces on Mount Rushmore before the fourth can be placed, his time in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, and so many other events that they begin to run together.

Simmons is so interested in giving the listener the full scope of Paha Sapa's life that his writing sometimes gets in the way of his storytelling — much as his need to present all the facts often supersedes the development of his fiction. But in combining the two — in creating a wholly believable world wherein the grounded, the spiritual, and the made-up coexist seamlessly — Simmons produces in Black Hills a shining example of what historical fiction can achieve when approached with verisimilitude.


Lee Thompson said...

Sounds great! I've heard so many wonderful things about Simmon's work but haven't had the chance to read any yet.

Rabid Fox said...

This was my favorite read from last year. I imagine it would be a captivating audiobook.

Craig Clarke said...

Depending on your interests, Drood might also be a good place to start.

It took me a long time to get through it, but it was absolutely worth it.

Todd Mason said...

I dunno...I get the sense (without having read it yet) that DROOD might also put more new readers to Simmons off than some of his earlier work, such as CARRION COMFORT. But this one does sound intriguing.

Craig Clarke said...

You make an interesting point, but I think that Carrion Comfort may be a little too extreme (not to mention epic) for a Simmons beginner. A horror fan might be better off starting with Song of Kali, just to get a feel for his style.

Then, of course, there's his classic coming-of-age tale Summer of Night (my first Simmons), which compares very well to McCammon's Boy's Life.

That's what I like best about Simmons: you just never know what he's going to come up with next. It must be very gratifying to be able to write whatever book you want without having to worry about pleasing your publisher.

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