The Queen of Swords, the third installment of R.S. Belcher’s Golgotha series, is also the first to take place outside the confines of the small silver-mining town that gives the series its name. It serves almost as a spinoff, a standalone adventure following assassin Maude Stapleton on a globe-spanning quest to defeat the monster she helped let loose on the world, featuring an entirely new cast of heroes and villains. It’s also feminist as hell, as Belcher uses his considerable narrative talents to deliver a story that pays homage to the pulp roots of its genre, while also examining both the time period it takes place in and the characters who inhabit it in a nuanced and realistic light, delivering a wonderfully twisted narrative about the importance of family.
In the wake of the most recent terror to sweep through Golgotha, Maude Stapleton, the bullet-catching monster-fighting single mother from we first met in The Shotgun Arcana, is forced to leave home and travel east to South Carolina to collect her daughter Constance and reclaim her family inheritance. But she’s not the only one searching for Constance—the girl is also being stalked by an insane death-cult of monsters serving Typhon, the eldritch god Maude was forced to free from his prison, as well as the Daughters of Lilith, the mysterious society of assassins to which Maude belongs. Both parties hope to capture the girl to gain access to the magical power coursing through her bloodstream. Meanwhile, a century earlier, pirate queen Anne Bonney breaks out of prison and makes her way across Africa, guided by rumors of a lost city and a massive statue of gold. Her path will cross with that of her great-great-great-great granddaughter in Carcosa, the city of monsters, in one last, desperate stand against Typhon.
The most wrenching, uncomfortable element of this novel is not the violence, nor is it the madly hallucinatory journey the characters must take to stop a god and rescue an innocent. Rather, it’s a matter of family: midway through the book, Maude is forced into a custody battle against her father. Belcher has never shied away from the sexism and racism that were part and parcel of life in the 1800s, but rather than pit Maude against blatant, cartoonish stereotypes of misogyny, she’s pitted against her concerned father, who simply wants the best for his granddaughter. He also makes a salient point about the benefits of not living in a mining town filled with demons, monsters, and a devious necromancer. It’s the way he and his lawyer try to advance the point, first with a legally binding document that declares Maude is legally the property of her dead husband; then, when that fails, by offering Maude an insulting plea deal where she will be allowed to raise Constance “properly,” that hammer home the point that women were (are) often treated as less than—too emotional for their own good. Martin is just sympathetic enough to make a good case, but thoroughly restrained by the social norms of the time period, underlining and interrogating the power imbalance between women and men of the era.
It’s a sequence that highlights Belcher’s deep focus on character. While there are supernatural terror and pulpy thrills aplenty to be found, this is very much a study of Maude and her unusual family more than a straightforward battle against a supernatural threat. A good portion of Maude’s chapters deal less with adventuring and more with her fight to retrieve her daughter and keep her family intact in the face of various threats, only some of them magical in nature. Anne’s story, unfolding generation’s prior, is more straightforward, but subverts all the usual clichés by taking a better look at the stock characters she meets, making real people of the native guide and the king guarding the ancient lost city—they become complex, fascinating allies with their own agendas. Occasional point-of-view chapters provide the perspective of Constance, and even the antagonistic Daughters of Lilith, making them more than just another damsel in distress or faction of villains, respectively.
The Golgotha series made its name as a grim, gritty reexamination of stock pulp (and specifically weird west) tropes, and Belcher brings the same nuanced light to the characters and events of The Queen of Swords, narrowing the focus without losing any of the intensity. Maude Stapleton always stood out among the citizens of Golgatha, and this book proves she deserves her time in the spotlight.