Whatever Simmons’s faults as a writer, you can’t knock his ambition. Having tackled a range of genres as varied as Stephen King-style airport horror (Summer of Night), hard-boiled crime (Hardcase) and epic space fantasy both brilliantly imaginative (Hyperion) and unreadably idiotic (Ilium), he has recently taken an unexpected left turn into historical fiction with Dickensian tragedy Drood and latest novel Black Hills.
The book covers the long and storied life of Paha Sapa, a luckless Native American whose travels take him from the battlefield at Little Big Horn to the sculpting of Mount Rushmore, via the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and a fair amount of personal tragedy. Initially, the story is bitty and unsatisfying, drip-feeding a couple of isolated snippets of Paha Sapa’s life interspersed with the tedious, pornographic ramblings of General Custer’s ghost. Simmons has clearly done plenty of research, but this reveals itself in a series of irrelevant factual asides and historical cameos that do nothing to further the narrative.
Gradually, though, the book begins to coalesce as it gathers pace: there are several passages of real, transcendent beauty here, coupled with a welcome cynicism towards stereotypical depictions of Native Americans as a simple, peace-loving spiritual people. Overall, Simmons has penned an ambitious, unusual, oddly compelling read.