One murder made a villain,
Millions a hero. Princes were privileged
To kill, and numbers sanctified the crime.
--Beilby Porteus (1731-1808), "Death"
Could he be? Could Santiago, the most ruthless and legendary outlaw of the Inner Frontier really have returned over a hundred years after his supposed death?
That depends upon one's definition of death; it seems some legends won't die. All they require to regain that needed breath of life is someone to tell their story, and that's what Mike Resnick and small-time thief Danny Briggs do. Eleven years after the publication of Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future, Resnick gives in to the clamoring of fans and comes out with the long-awaited sequel further exploring the mysteries of the galaxy's most notorious legend.
While simultaneously ducking the law and committing an act of burglary, Danny Briggs, the unlikely hero of Mike Resnick's latest novel, The Return of Santiago, stumbles onto the long-lost pages of Black Orpheus's original ballad of the Inner Frontier -- a collection of short verses about the living legends that populated the lawless worlds beyond the borders of the Democracy a century before. While studying the poem in depth, Danny makes a startling discovery. There wasn't just one Santiago, but a succession of five different individuals, including a bounty hunter named Sebastian Cain, the hero of the previous Santiago novel. What's more, Danny Briggs comes to realize that Santiago was no mere outlaw; he was a rebel, a freedom fighter, and a force for slowing the abuses of the galaxy-spanning Democracy. Santiago was the galaxy's most wanted criminal and its greatest hero, all at the same time.
Just as he makes these discoveries, events take over which drive Danny from the Democracy and into the Inner Frontier itself, a region of the galaxy akin to the American Old West, where laws are less well-defined and people make their livings however they can. Tired of the heavy-handedness of the Democracy, Danny takes up where Orpheus left off and, in true Inner Frontier tradition, assumes a new name: Dante Alighieri the Rhymer. His mission becomes twofold. First, he will compose a new volume of poems chronicling the exploits of the Inner Frontier's current legends; and second, he will search for an heir worthy of the legacy of Santiago and set him against the Democracy.
But the road to resurrecting a legend is not an easy one. As clever a thief as Danny is, he's a babe in the woods once he arrives at the Inner Frontier. But his adopted role as the successor to Black Orpheus helps get his foot in the door, and he ends up acquiring a most unusual guide in a wandering killer named Virgil Soaring Hawk, the most sexually-deviant sidekick in literature. Together they travel from world to world meeting more of Resnick's trademark colorful characters and recruiting them for Danny/Dante's quest to find a new Santiago.
Readers familiar with Resnick's Birthright universe -- particularly the original Santiago novel and his previous novel, The Outpost -- will recognize the style of characters he creates. Their vivid names alone summon up the shades of American folk-heroes such as Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and Captain Stormalong. There is Tyrannosaur Bailey, a monster of man who runs a profitable protection racket; Moby Dick, an improbably large albino who manages a casino for aliens; Deuteronomy Jones who's all brimstone, fire, and booze; the deadly One-Armed Bandit; the dashing and heroic Silvermane; and a pair of alien entities named Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Even the settings of The Return of Santiago inspire images of the Old West, with tradertowns, tumbleweeds, and dust devils crossing barren plains.
Some readers may wonder if this book qualifies as "true" science fiction if the story itself could be successfully transplanted into another genre such as the western. It would be simple enough to substitute laser guns for Winchester rifles, spaceships for horses, and far-flung planets for dry gulch towns, but the fact remains that Resnick's writing works more vividly as a high-adventure romp through space than as a mundane, Earth-bound western. It's what he's good at. Resnick has created a colorful, living universe which he has successfully used many times before in such books as Birthright: The Book of Man, The Widowmaker, Oracle, and The Outpost.
What's more, the real story he's written asks questions that rise above the details of setting alone. Through Dante Alighieri, Resnick explores the theme of what makes a legend. What indeed? What qualities embody the legacy of Santiago? Charisma? Integrity? Lethal skill? What makes a hero not simply a hero, but an effective hero? At first the problem seems a simple one to solve -- look for the biggest, most intelligent, deadly, and charismatic man around, and tell him he's the new Santiago. But solutions are never that easy when the questions turn out to be more difficult than originally conceived -- and mistakes can end up costing innocent lives.
Santiago cannot simply be a killer. Nor can he be a saint. A hundred years prior, the previous Santiagos sometimes had to order assassinations to advance their cause, so being Santiago also requires a sense of pragmatism. At the same time, Santiago has to be able to inspire his followers to give their utmost loyalty, so he cannot be a monster. Santiago must be able to delegate without losing sight of his operations, yet also trust his people to do their job. Being Santiago is not just a job, it's a complex personality, and as Dante comes to learn this, we see his own character develop. While searching for the perfect hero, Dante gets involved in a number of scrapes in order to save his fellows, and learns something of heroism himself.
By the end, the conclusion is obvious to nearly everyone involved. Santiago not only rides again, he was present for far longer than Dante suspected. And as readers, we come to the end of the quest right along with Dante, feeling we've made the heroic journey ourselves. Whether or not we learn at last what makes a legend, we learn something about the nature of Santiago, and that's enough.
While The Return of Santiago as a sequel is a worthy successor, it lacks in comparison to Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future. The characters of this new book lack some of the dimension and vitality that brought to life such memorable figures as Sebastian Cain, Virtue Mackenzie, and the Angel. But despite having a flatter supporting cast, Resnick takes the time to make his main characters vivid and interesting. Where at times the novel may seem like a space-western, there are the occasional unexpected twists such as maze-worlds and alien megalomaniacs.
The Return of Santiago can be read on its own or in conjunction with the first novel. In either case, Mike Resnick succeeds in telling a ripping good yarn while bringing legends to life, and hope to the Inner Frontier.
But to the hero, when his sword
Has won the battle for the free,
Thy voice sounds like a prophet's word;
And in its hollow tones are heard
The thanks of millions yet to be.
-- Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790-1867), "Marco Bozzaris"
Copyright © 2003 John Teehan
John Teehan lives and writes in Providence, Rhode Island. He has recently sold stories which will appear in Men Writing SF as Women (Daw, 2003) and Low Port (Meisha Merlin, 2003). His essay on the roots of fantasy appears in The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy (Dragon Moon Press, 2003). John publishes the fanzine Sleight of Hand and is the current Art Director / Production Manager for the SFWA Bulletin. John's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. You can email him at email@example.com.
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