The year is 1864. Sister Thomas Josephine, an innocent Visitantine nun from St Louis, Missouri, is making her way west to the promise of a new life in Sacramento, California. When an attack on her wagon train leaves her stranded in Wyoming, Thomas Josephine finds her faith tested and her heart torn between Lt. Theodore F. Carthy, a man too beautiful to be true, and the mysterious grifter Abraham C. Muir.
Falsely accused of murder she goes on the run, all the while being hunted by a man who has become dangerously obsessed with her. Her journey will take her from the most forbidding mountain peaks to the hottest, most hostile desert on earth, from Nevada to Mexico to Texas, and her faith will be tested in ways she could never imagine.
Nunslinger is the true tale of Sister Thomas Josephine, a woman whose desire to do good in the world leads her on an incredible adventure that pits her faith, her feelings and her very life against inhospitable elements, the armies of the North and South, and the most dangerous creature of all: man.
Nunslinger is a very strange beast. Serialised fiction in the 21st century, it’s a demonstration of a concept that hadn’t really been tested; pseudonymously published, it comes without even a bare-bones biography; a Western, but incredibly modern feeling; and, indeed, feminist, without attacking religion – despite being centred on a nun.
Holborn’s novel is, inevitably, episodic; told in 12 “books”, each with a brief description of its contents in true Victorian style, the actual chapters within those books are very short, sharp, and punchy, moving fast and dragging the reader along. Nunslinger is told in the first person, which has an incredibly interesting effect on the reader as we see Sister Thomas Josephine changing from the inside without her noticing those changes herself; it gives an in to the character as well as lending that sense of immediacy that first person is famous for. That immediacy is key to this novel; not only does every book end on a cliffhanger, but Holborn manages to end most of the hundreds of chapters on cliffhangers of some kind, without it feeling like artificial suspense. Because Nunslinger doesn’t have any slack, the whole thing just keeps holding the reader’s attention; one is drawn in and can’t re-emerge, because to do so would be to be left on tenterhooks.
This would not work if the reader were not concerned for Sister Thomas Josephine, of course. Nunslinger hangs on getting the reader to empathise with and care about its protagonist and narrator, and Holborn does so excellently. Dropping the reader into the story in media res, we’re introduced to Sister Josephine as an unworldly nun; that is, with seemingly no experience of life outside the convent. As the novel proceeds, though, we learn about her past, and see the pre-convent life of the sister, and see her confront the darker aspects of life; she isn’t presented as purity and love entirely, but as human, as conflicted, as having to deal with the places where her nunnish ideals run into her lived experiences of the world and her personal sense of justice. It creates a brilliant conflict between two loves; Nunslinger is at its heart about the struggle between Sister Josephine’s love for God, and her love for the outlaw Abraham C. Muir. It’s a balance that Holborn handles incredibly deftly, not making either obviously the right or wrong choice, showing her commitment to both, in a really interesting piece of emotional engagement.
This is, of course, a Western, and that determines an awful lot of the plot of Nunslinger. Virtually every vital ingredient is here; from the deserter with a heart of gold to the implacable lawman (in the form of Benjamin Reasoner, an amazing character and a great addition to the cast as a character of colour), from the beautiful but corrupted soldier to the shadowy figure behind it all (not who you might think), Holborn has stacked her novel with cliché after cliché, and yet has also made it work. This is in part due to the aforementioned excellent writing, but is also because Holborn understands how to use clichés; Nunslinger doesn’t simply embrace the standard formulations, but approaches them intelligently and, dare one say, progressively. This isn’t a 1950s vision of the Wild West so much as a 1950s vision seen through a 21st century lens; it is willing to show, but not willing to heroise, white attacks on Native Americans, including the brutality of the genocide perpetuated, for instance.
Nunslinger ticks any number of boxes in my mind for great, enjoyable reading. It’s fun, it does ask big, important questions, it’s progressive, and it’s just generally a really good book. Whoever Stark Holborn is, they’ve delivered an excellent piece of work here.