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Review: Wraiths of the Broken Land by S. Craig Zahler

By Gabino Iglesias
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Almost every book out there promises to be unlike anything else you've read before. Sadly, very few deliver on that promise. S. Craig Zahler's Wraiths of the Broken Land is one of those odd narratives that belongs in the second group. I've read a lot, and the first few chapters of this book immediately made me take notice: Wraiths of the Broken Land is unique. How unique? Well, in the first paragraph, a "woman who had forgotten her name" moves around on a filthy mattress and removes a dead baby turtle from her vagina. If you've read anything like that before, please get in touch with me and give me the author and title of the book.

Like an updated and infinitely darker take on Alan LeMay's The Searchers, Wraiths of the Broken Land tells the story of the Plugford men as they set out to rescue two kidnapped sisters who were forced into prostitution by a man called Gris. They hire some help, including a man who always keeps his eyes on everything but remains out of sight, and figure out where the women are being held captive. The plan is to get them back and get some retribution in the process, but they can do that they'll have to go hell, lie, ask the right questions, and spill some blood.

The first thing that stands out in this book is Zahler's prose. The writing, at once elegant and smelling of authenticity, is electric, always moving forward at breakneck speed even when the scenes are as mellow as a father playing guitar and singing a song to her daughter in bed way past midnight. Also, the dialogue crackles with electricity and the mysticism that comes from a healthy dose of Spanglish.

The second thing that makes this a great tome is Zahler's attention to detail, superb descriptions, and the fact that he made sure all his characters were multilayered. When you take those characters and place them in a typical setting, the result is a narrative rich in imagery that can only be described as cinematic. For example, a game of dice in a smoky saloon turns into a tense moment that shines a light on a white man's thoughts on the way Mexican's party and drink, serves as a study in gambling etiquette, and makes the proper usage of the word "amigo" take center stage. Considering Zahler's western screenplay, The Brigands of Rattleborge, earned him a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers, the cinematic feel of his writing should come as no surprise, but it's still a treat.

Wraiths of the Broken Land is a classic Western that's been twisted into the shape of a snarling monster, shot full of violence, anger, and pain, and dipped in horror. With its combination of gunshots, anger, messages burned into flesh, and death, it will please fans of crime, horror, dark fantasy, and literary fiction alike. It's a brutal and wonderfully gritty tale full of darkness and superb writing. However, you should read it simply because it delivers on its promise of being unlike any Western you've ever read before.