The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl
by Tim Pratt
Review by Ernest Lilley
Spectra Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0553383388
Date: 29 November, 2005 List Price $12.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Marzi is a barista working in the charming and slightly crazy town of Santa Cruz. I've been to Santa Cruz, and from what I recall Pratt has absolutely nailed this little pocket of craziness and artistic energy caught between the hills and the Pacific. Back to Marzi. A while back Marzi dropped out of college, where she was studying art, to check into a sanitarium. She'd developed an overwhelming trauma about opening doors that shook her so badly she just dropped out of life for a while. Now, a bit shaky but on her feet again, she's serving up java at Genus Loci, a place that used to be an artist's group home and is now a coffee shop with a devoted clientele and the last works of Garamond Ray on the walls. Garamond disappeared during a major quake that brought much of Santa Cruz down in ruins in the 80s and his artistic legacy lives on in a series of rooms with different motifs, stars, seascape, etc., and down in the basement storeroom, where the floor is rotted and you should never go...desert.
Marzi keeps herself sane by drawing a comic for a small press starring a tough gal facing down mythic villains in the old west, or some old west, and the villains are all aspects of the same evil force, which she thinks of as "the Outlaw". In the comic, the gal, known by her handle from the title, Rangergirl, has opened a door in her bedroom to find a dusty yet surreal landscape filled with magic and evil, and in each episode she faces the Outlaw to keep him from fulfilling his plans. As the comic is a work in progress, we don't know how it turns out, which would be handy...if a cheat...since it quickly becomes clear that while Marzi is a talented artist with a terrific imagination, she's being inspired by something real...or worse, something unreal that would very much like to escape from behind the door in the desert room to become real.
No western hero should be without a posse, and Rangergirl's is top notch. On one side of our leather slappin' barista there's Jonathon, an art history grad student from back east out to study Ray's work, and with whom there's more than a chance for romance. On the other is her faithful lesbian/bi companion, Lindsay, who never gave up on her through her trial by monsters from the id, or wherever, and whose love of life is a strength that Marzi will have to draw upon in the tough times ahead. And tough times they are. The Outlaw wants out, and has managed to pry open a doorway into this reality just far enough to influence a madman, an earth goddess worshiper, and an obsessive compulsive sculptor with a ton of guilt on his hands. Twisting each of them to his own ends, going so far as to turn one into a golem, he forces Rangergirl/Marzi to fight a two-front action to keep him penned in...and to make things more difficult, Marzi isn't in any great hurry to accept that all the weird stuff going on around her isn't just a relapse into insanity. She should be so lucky.
This is a terrific yarn, and while it's got a romantic subplot or three in it, they're not the center of the story, which is about Marzi's fight with the Outlaw. All that other stuff just makes the characters human, and engaging. We're familiar with stories where mutants or mages discover their true talent in order to fight evil, or to promote it, and this flows along those lines as well...but the super powers that the characters possess are their artistic talents and creative energies. The author is paying tribute to the notion that artists are touched by the gods, and here they're able to return the favor.
There's something about stories of the west overlaid with elements of fantasy that I really enjoy. If you've been through the desert you've probably felt its portent...a place that empty seems like it must be full of something we can't quite see...and it's easy to see how our mundane worldview could shrink down to the space illuminated by a campfire in the midst of an endless desert with who knows what just beyond our light. It's a hostile place too, ready to throw us out. A land that laughs at our delusions of mastery. Pratt has done a really great job adding his own legends to this landscape, and working within his own narrative imperative to bring the story full circle.
You've probably already read Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which was superb in its own way, but somehow less satisfying for me in the end. A different story that I can wholeheartedly recommend if you like this, or the other way round is Coyote Cowgirl by Kim Antieau (see review) or even the more recent Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez (see review).
Pratt got deservedly lucky (though that may be an oxymoron) with the cover artist for The Strange Adventures Of Rangergirl. His pulp tribute cover was created by Michael Koelsch, who also did the cover for Gun, With Occasional Music, which I've always admired.
If, like me, you're just discovering Tim Pratt through his first novel, the good news is that he's got a seemingly endless supply of chapbooks, short stories and poetry we can mine while waiting for him to settle down and write up another book long tale. You can start with Little Gods, a collection of his stories, several of which are available online at the author's site (go to Little Gods site )