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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"Black Hills" by Dan Simmons (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Dan Simmons Website
Order "Black Hills" HERE
Read an Excerpt from "Black Hills" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Drood"
Read FBC review of "The Terror"

INTRODUCTION: As the celebrated author of the magnificent Hyperion Cantos saga, the critically acclaimed bestsellers “The Terror” and Drood”, Dan Simmons has proven time and again to be a writer of great versatility and appeal. So "Black Hills" was an automatic read for me and led my "known" 2010 anticipated mainstream novel list.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Black Hills" stands at about 500+ pages divided into 25 chapters with an epilogue. The chapters jump in time and space and generally follow the POV of title character Paha Sapa - Black Hills in the Sioux language - aka "Billy Slow Horse" of Lakota origin who has a strange ability of glimpsing the past and future of various people by touching them. Not of everyone since sometimes he gets just glimpses, sometimes nothing at all, but for some selected ones, Paha Sapa "sees" their whole life to present and even to their future death.

There are interlude chapters containing monologues of the ghost of General Custer and addressed to his beloved wife Libbie. Most chapters have a heading indicating the year and the place in which the third person narration happens.

"Black Hills" is a novel that encompasses so many aspects that a simple classification would not do it justice, though I would say that in its essence it is a love paean to the American West in a panoramic view from some 15 thousand years ago to an imagined future of some hundred years from now and with a focus on the crucial 1876-1936 period; this period started with the defeat of General Custer which led to massive troop reinforcements and the almost immediate and total defeat of the Sioux and ended with what some saw as the final stamp of domination by the "wasichu" aka the "fat takers", the Mount Rushmore carvings in one of the most sacred of all Native American places. But Black Hills is also a personal novel, a coming of age story, a love story, a story of persevering in face of adversity and its main character Paha Sapa is just unforgettable.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Reading from the blurb of the novel:

"When Paha Sapa, a young Sioux warrior, "counts coup" on General George Armstrong Custer as Custer lies dying on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, the legendary general's ghost enters him - and his voice will speak to him for the rest of his event-filled life. Seamlessly weaving together the stories of Paha Sapa, Custer, and the American West, Dan Simmons depicts a tumultuous time in the history of both Native and white Americans...",

I was not sure how excited to be about "Black Hills", but in my Anticipated 2010 Novels long post I concluded with :"it's Dan Simmons as big time mainstream writer, it's a must", so when an arc of the novel arrived on my doorstep, I opened it and just got hooked form the first page, left everything I was reading at the time and started it. At the end I was extremely impressed but I knew I needed a re-read to fully appreciate the novel since there is so much inside, while technically the narrative is structured in a time jumping manner that almost demands such re-read, once we know what happens and we can see the subtleties and scattered clues better.

The first thing to do when you start reading "Black Hills" is leave aside any preconception induced by the blurb or by a simple plot description; while the blurb is accurate as it goes, the surprises and twists and turns of the novel are just too many to simply classify it as a "supernatural western".

Even better, forget about the blurb and just pick up the novel and open it or check out the excerpt linked above and prepare to be hooked. As opposed to the sardonic and cynical "Drood", "Black Hills" is immediate, personal and haunting and it is actually quite different from anything I read by Dan Simmons.

Then be prepared for the time-jumps that just throw the reader into the unknown, but keep reading since things will converge and make sense eventually. Paha Sapa's tale is just engrossing whether as a boy of 11 in the midst of one of the most brutal chapters in the fight for the West, a young man of 28 playing the part of an "Indian brave" in the Buffalo Bill's show at the Chicago World Fair of 1893 and finding the unexpected, or as an experienced dynamite handler in 1936; carving huge faces from the mountain; of course there is actually much more that we find out about him but that would be spoiling.

In Black Hills we also meet quite a few famous people and through the "special ability" of Paha Sapa we actually get to experience a sort of "God's view" of three of them: General Custer of course whose ghost becomes part of our hero's mental landscape and in time the two become maybe not quite friends, but more like long-time companions used to their respective foibles, the famous Sioux warrior Crazy Horse and the person who made Mt. Rushmore a reality, the controversial genius architect Gutzon Borglum.

The novel comes also to life very strongly in the descriptions of the landscape; after all Black Hills is a sacred place for the Sioux and quite a few other Indian Nations and Paha Sapa's uniqueness is established at birth by his naming after it - contrary to the regular Sioux naming conventions - though for definite reasons you will find out in the book.

Considering the many things that are inside, I am sure that every reader will find his/her own reasons to appreciate the novel, but I want to emphasize again that for me Paha Sapa, the loving descriptions of the land and the immediate and personal style trumped the rest and made "Black Hills" such an engrossing read that stayed with me for a long while and a book I added to my collection of treasured novels to be revisited occasionally.

Despite its clear, explicit fantastic elements and its sfnal touches in the glimpses of a possible future, "Black Hills" is first and foremost a mainstream literary novel and so far it's the best 2010 such that I've read with a good chance of staying there.

Highly, highly recommended for any lover of great literature.


shaneo52 said...

Great review Liviu,,,,I'm a big fan of The Old West, and Native American culture, I might have to pick this up!

Mihai A. said...

This is one of the novels that are on my wish list :)

Mike Johnstone said...

Thanks for this review. I'm a big fan of Simmons' SF, to be sure, and Drood has a place very near the top of my to-be-read pile (also being a fan of 19th-century fiction). You have encouraged me to get to Drood sooner rather than later, and then get my hands on Black Hills.

I wonder if Simmons could be considered one of the most versatile and daring writers today, SF&F or mainstream. To go from the Ilium/Olympos duology to The Terror to Drood to Black Hills is impressive, to say the least, perhaps particularly for the way in which he has taken on the historical novel and reimagined it with varying levels of the fantastic (not unlike Toni Morrison's Beloved, for instance).

Do we see Simmons getting consideration for a Pulitzer at some point, maybe?

Liviu said...

Thank you all for the comments; well if it were up to me, Black Hills should be on any major literary US prize shortlist - National Book Award, Pulitzer

I actually think it has a decent chance for the reason that as opposed to The Terror and Drood who dealt with English themes, this one deals with quintessential American ones

The Fantasizer said...

Very intriguing plot. Another fabulous review, Liviu, Great job.

By the way what do you do? how do you get the time to read so much? are you like a full time reader?lol:) is that even a real job? lol:). Would be completely awesome if it were.

Jimmy Bing said...

The fact that this one has gotten some good reviews and clocks in at less than 600 pages might force me to pick it up. Dan Simmons the author is great. Dan Simmons the person is a self-righteous asshole and his books have become more than a little bloated in recent years. The Terror and Drood being perfect examples.

ediFanoB said...

What a great review! I loved TERROR and DROOD.And now I can't wait to read BLACK HILLS !!

I hope you don't mind that I shard word about your awesome review on twitter and facebook :)

Liviu said...

Thank you again for more kind words;

@Jimmy - I have not had the chance to know Mr. Simmons so far except through his work, but I disagree that The Terror or Drood are bloated.

Great novels can be long too as the history of literature shows and Drood at least read very fast for me.

I liked The Terror slightly less mostly because I read way too many books with Arctic/Antarctic explorers since my childhood including several about the doomed Franklin expedition there, while "pure horror" is less appealing for me


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