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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Calen Thorn 1 - The First Shot by L. J. Coburn

Caleb Thorn is another of the classic long out of print westerns that are being brought back by those wonderful guys at  Piccadilly Publishing. The company, who publish all original fiction alongside classics of yesteryear,  take their name from a group of mostly British western writers  who between them churned out countless series fiction aimed at the red blooded adult reader. During the 70's/80's these writers became known as the Piccadilly Cowboys - reportedly because the furthest West they'd been was Piccadilly.

As a teenage reader I used to devour books from these authors  and although I remember seeing the Caleb Thorn books (WERE THEY PUBLISHED BY CORGI?) I didn't read them at the time.

 I was more of a straightforward western fan and I think the Civil War setting would have put me off. My favorite series back then were the Edge books by George G Gilman and even though I bloody loved his books,  still do, I wasn't overly keen on the Edge books that used flashbacks to tell a Civil War story. I still read them - I read anything to do with Edge -but they were my least favorites in the series. My brand of westerns were always dominated by the lone gunslinger traveling the West, bedding women, killing bad guys and sucking on a quirly. And besides I've never really felt that civil war set stories are strictly speaking, westerns. I still don't think they are truly westerns but more war stories with settings familiar to readers of true westerns.

These days though I've matured and very much enjoy the Edge civil war books and so I thought I'd give Caleb Thorn a try.

Edge's civil war
From the off Caleb Thorn seems a problematic read for the modern tastes - one early scene of a black slave being whipped on a Southern plantation seems gratuitous. I can see the point of the scene because later the cruel woman who watches over, indeed is responsible for,  the whipping is drowned by a slave who hates her with all his heart, but it's not the same slave as suffered the whipping and far too much detail goes into the punishment. The character of Caleb Thorn is also not really likeable, in fact he comes across as an arrogant, mother obsessed, little rich boy. He's also psychotic - think Norman Bates with a six gun or maybe Tom Powers with a little less personality. Some scenes are deeply uncomfortable and suggest a relationship between Caleb and his mother that is almost sexual.

However that said the story is compelling and even although I found myself often wincing during the early stages of the story I did keep the pages turning. Of course at the end of the day this is an high concept adult story - it's basically the Dirty Dozen transported to the Civil War and then pumped up on steroids. There's nothing wrong with that and indeed this is, with minor niggles, a very well written and compelling read. By the end of the book Caleb Thorn does seem a different man and I'll certainly be reading the next in the series - in fact I've  downloaded it a moment ago.

A strong point of the book is the way the events take place alongside actual historical events  - there's a terrific scene at the Battle of Bull Run and later when Caleb and his band of misfits go on a dangerous mission to destroy a bridge behind enemy lives, the atmosphere is tangible.

Top marks then to this book, but readers should be warned that if you are not familiar with this style of book, which were all the rage in less politically correct times, then you may find some of it, specifically the early chapters, hard going but stick with it because the book is written by a storyteller of great skill and there's a bloody enjoyable read here. It's also pretty authentic in its depiction of key civil war events. It's a book for red blooded, meat eating, chain smoking, whiskey chugging,  males or simply those unconcerned with political correctness and can accept a story for what it is - a brilliantly constructed entertainment with adult themes.

Caleb Thorn is available now from Piccadilly Publishing and you can find them Here

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