Did you get a wad of cash for Christmas? Any gift vouchers for book stores? Good news is, I know exactly what you need to buy with that money. Doesn’t a story about a nun with a gun sound amazing? Nunslinger is the stunning debut from (pseudonym) Stark Holborn. Originally released as separate novellas, the complete Nunslinger novel contains all 12 ‘books’.
From the beginning, Nunslinger is a tense, action-packed thrill ride that never stops. For a tale with a nun as the main character, there is surprisingly little moral lecturing – after all, she is a sinner like the rest of us. There’s barely a moment to breathe between the murder, attempted rape, kidnapping, and other sinful adventures. Holborn keeps us in the style of the West without laboring it, with language that’s both fun and expressive.
Sister Thomas Josephine, a Visitandine nun is making her way out west where she might do some good. Before she can reach her destination, her wagon train is attacked and she finds herself kidnapped. The man who kidnaps her, one Abraham C. Muir, might not be as bad as she first thought, however. Where the law has little sway over outlaws and vigilantes, what is right and wrong grows increasingly blurry.
With a bounty on both their heads, the Sister and Abe try to avoid the blue coats and the noose. As she travels through the country, Sister Josephine attempts to reconcile her actions with God. Is this dangerous path really the one He wanted for her? How many souls can she save where honour and law have no meaning?
As a tempest that passeth
Written as a series of novellas, Nunslinger has a strange structure and pace. But that strangeness is forgotten as the reader races along with a story that never seems to slow down. There is one speed that Holborn travels at and you best keep up. While the novel doesn’t have a necessarily traditional three act structure, it still ends up feeling like there is a logical beginning, middle, and end. There are dozens of cliffhangers and surprising reveals that will leave you desperate to read just one more chapter. Though the 614 page extent is no chump change, it will still feel like too short a time with Sister Thomas Josephine and her travelling companions.
A story like this is difficult to pull off – creating a character who is both pious and rebellious without seeming contradictory is no mean feat. But in each instance that Sister Josephine behaves in a manner that might usually be considered against type for a nun, her actions make sense for her character. She always does what she believes is right, even if it might be against social convention or what she was brought up to believes. But that is what makes her such a compelling character – she is devoted to God but also to making her own choices. She is the master of her own destiny after all.
Sister Josephine quickly learns that the world is a brutal place. While it isn’t strictly a nun’s duty, Josephine learns to shoot and exist in the wilds of the desert. She is resourceful and quick-witted as she tangles with all manner of men. No matter what circumstance she finds herself in, Josephine manages to find the strength from within to keep going. After all, there are always more souls to save.
What is also particularly refreshing is the lack of romantic interest or sexual tension in the story. Too many narratives rely on this kind of tension to keep readers engaged. But Sister Josephine is a Bride of Christ, married to God. She’s already taken. There are men in her life but they are friends, companions, souls to save, nothing more. Any lascivious intentions come from the men rather than Sister Josephine and tend to indicate a need to welcome piety into their lives. While a nun may be the main character, that doesn’t mean that sex as a topic is completely avoided. Abraham ends up in a whorehouse, one that actually takes in the nun, while one of Sister Josephine’s pursuers is suffering from syphilis. And no matter what sins people have committed, Sister Josephine believes they can all be saved. There’s always hope for every soul.
No character in Nunslinger is all good or all bad, not even the nun herself. Everything comes in shades of grey. While this character construction avoids clichés and soap box lecturing, the best part is that it feels very real. Any of these characters are easily imaginable and could be transposed into our time with ease. Nunslinger does not romanticize the untamed West nor does it dictate to the readers what to think. Instead, it has us asking a lot of questions, particularly about the nature of good and evil, the point of life, and what it means to be an individual and in charge of our own choices.
Verdict: You will not want to put Nunslinger down until you’ve come to the conclusion of Sister Thomas Josephine’s epic adventure. The story keeps you on your toes at all times, never letting up. And who’d want it to? Get ready for betrayal, murder, revenge, outlaws, war, thieves, whores, and more. Best read while drinking Whiskey and listening to Ennio Morricone.