Kenneth Tam’s The Grasslands (Iceberg Publishing, 2008) is the first in the prolific author’s Her Majesty’s New World series. Known more for science fiction (The Defence Command and Equations series’), Tam ventures into alternate historical fiction but eventually embraces his comfort zone – and that’s where this phenomenal book stumbles.
The book’s back cover informs us that in 1881, gateways to a new world have been discovered in both the American and British Empire’s sides of the Rocky Mountains. The two have partnered to settle the remarkably – and curiously – Earth-like world.
The story moves forward to 1919 where the renowned Royal Newfoundland Regiment (RNR) are brought out west and given their mission: escort three women into the untamed grasslands of the new world. Sounds easy for such an accomplished outfit, no? Well, unfortunately for Major Thomas ‘Tom’ Waller, Lieutenant James ‘Jimmy’ Devlin and the b’ys, the new world has a dangerous threat: the savages.
In the prologue, we’re teased with the severity of this threat. The beasts frighten trained members of the United States Cavalry and cause unease in Smith, the world-wise, American drifter. Abnormally strong and quick, the human-like savages also eat whatever is in their path . . . including their own.
Immediately noticeable is Tam’s ability to create unique voices for his characters. Smith’s old world sensibilities are contrasted against the dangers of the new world. Major Waller is introduced in a relatively sombre manner, and his interactions with the jovial Lieutenant Devlin and the rest of his men show one who has earned respect rather than demands it.
The charges of the RNR are Lady Emma Lee, her friend Kara Lynne and their maid. There are signs that things aren’t as they seem: the constant presence of an unusual black cape; a few instances where men’s minds become fogged when around the women. Oh, and did I mention the bizarre series of coincidences involving savages?
Tam’s hybrid of military action, character drama and tense western works wonderfully. His respect for the subject matter is evident. Unfortunately, the sheer attention to detail has a dark side. Sometimes we don’t need to see how the sausage is made – just give us the sausage! Another problem is the sheer number of names – and sometimes the amount of time that passes between linkage of name and role. If reading in a single sitting, this isn’t an issue but if breaks are needed, or after lengthy battle scenes, a reminder would be nice.
These complaints are minor blemishes; more frustrating is the final lap. Nearly all of the book was rooted in one place and then violently rent from the earth and transplanted elsewhere — this obvious sequel set-up may have fit better as a lengthy prologue than as several chapters and is the sole reason I cannot award this book the full five stars. I suspect the next novel(s) will allow me to, when revisiting The Grasslands, view things in a different light.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars