Its the origin story of Calamity Jane… if she’d had an alien for a sidekick and access to some awesome, sci-fi weaponry. We meet Jane at her most vulnerable, and it’s only because of the Green Man’s timely arrival that she lives to fight another day.
Jane and the Green Man go through the Wild West in a storm of bullets, lasers and whatever comes out of the men-in-black-esque pocket gun that Jane uses. Along the way, they interact with several other figures from Western lore, and the villains are both familiar and delightfully new.
By the end of the novel, Jane has transformed into Calamity Jane in all her legendary glory, but getting to see the progression put a face to the stories I’d learned about growing up. Calamity is clearly not meant to be an accurate biographical account, but JD Jordan does a fantastic job of humanizing a mythic figure in a creative and fresh way.
I do need to provide a bit of a trigger warning on this one. The story opens with a very violent attack on the farm Jane lives on, and well, you can imagine what the is on some of the assailant’s minds… If that’s going to bother you, I’d suggest skipping the first twenty pages or so.
Jane and the Green Man are both fully fleshed out characters. It would have been easy to make the Green Man in particular more of the stereotypical alien, but instead we get an interesting mix of foreign, strange behavior, and the lone gunslinger that is a staple of any self respecting Western.
Jane’s progression is also well done. She’s got the chip on her shoulder that you see in many teenagers, but actually has a reason to be that way other than “I’m a surly teenager because thats what sells.” Jordan does a great job of giving us a sense of the struggle and fear she has throughout the story, but also showing how she constantly steps up and take the reins in spite of that fear.
A few of the secondary characters felt a bit cliched at times, but they were here and gone fast enough that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t looking closely.
Calamity is more divided by Act breaks than most novels I’ve seen. While it is all one story, it almost felt like three novellas that were loosely connected. The first break threw me for a bit of a loop, mostly just because I wasn’t expecting it, but once you realize whats happening, the second break isn’t as disruptive.
Aside from that, I really enjoyed the story. Jane and the Green Man are facing some very formidable villains in the Grey Men and others, so I never got the sense that victory was a foregone conclusion. I figured that Jane would survive (she is technically telling the story) but that didn’t mean everyone else was safe. And there were definitely a few points where the Green Man needed Jane to pull his butt out of the fire…
Calamity is Cowboys and Aliens if Daniel Craig had been a teenage girl and the CGI hadn’t sucked. The Wild West feels like the Wild West. You get the conflict between the indian tribes and the army, the unforgiving desert, and lots of guns and shootouts.
But where Calamity really shines is in how the alien tech plays into the conquering of the frontier. It’s not an alien invasion that the humans have to repel. Instead, I was almost reminded of the US foreign policy in the Middle East in the 80s, where different groups were equipped with weapons and then used as proxies. It was a really fresh spin on your typical human/alien relationships.
Calamity is told from an older Jane’s perspective, so its colored by some of her later experiences, which leads to some interesting opportunities for foreshadowing. The word choice and descriptions also mature as the story goes on, showing Jane’s progression. The tone also matched the setting really well. The descriptions that Jane gives us line up with what I had in my head for a Western, but when it came to the alien tech there was a good mix of “I’ve got no idea what this is” and still “but I can use it to shoot things so I’m good.” Not sure if I’m explaining that well, but you’ll see what I mean when you read it.
Pretty sure my most common Halloween costume growing up was a cowboy (though I’m not sure it was a toy story cowboy…), so when you throw in a few aliens and cool weapons, you’re speaking my language. The structural design gave me a bit of heartburn at first, but you quickly get past it and back to enjoying the craziness. The pacing and tension is well managed, so I never got bored, or felt like we were just trudging along for the sake of trudging.
Overall – Private Stock
This is a rare one. The mix of Sci-Fi and Western reminds me of a cult classics like Firefly, but with Jordan’s own unique twist on the mashed up genre. He pulls you along with the characters and story, and we get to play in his sandbox. Check it out, and then go pester JD to write the next one ASAP.
Pairs well with…
Yipee Ki-Yay from High West Distillery. Aside from the obvious connection on the label, I laughed at the description on High West’s website. The tone reminded me of several passages from Jordan’s novel, though this was a bit less gritty, which is probably a good thing. No one wants gritty bourbon…