Taking its cue from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but this time with American and actual historical characters rather than literary ones. As with Moore’s work, there is the bit of fantastical that makes the story far more rollicking. But where Moore was depressing and dark, Glass gives us history-made-fun. The characters remain true to their strengths and weaknesses but we get a new spin on actual events and people.
Story: Theodore Roosevelt hates the Tammany Hall corruption in his City and the elite robber barons (Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller) who move the chess pieces of politics. But he fights in secret every night to protect and save the people of New York. When the USS Maine explodes in Cuba, it is apparent war is imminent. He gathers a secret team to go to Cuba and try to prevent the war: Harry Houdini (the brain), Jack Johnson (the muscle), Thomas Edison (the scientist), Monk Eastman (the enforcer), and Annie Oakley (the bodyguard). But they find much more than they expected!
The historical aspects were a joy. From Edison’s motivations being about swindling and beating Tesla, Jack Johnson’s arrogance and bravado, Annie Oakley’s foul mouth, Teddy Roosevelt’s patriotism and righteousness, even Houdini’s sharp observation skills. But there are also little Easter Eggs of the characters: Harry Houdini being taught how to take a punch in the ‘bread basket’ by Johnson (similar to the punch which ended his life in reality) and Roosevelt using Annie’s letter to McKinley volunteering her sharp shooting services to the military in order to enlist her into his ‘rough riders’. When Roosevelt names their band the “rough riders’, it’s a little wink to the real life origin of the name – Buffalo Bill’s show name for his group, of which Annie was a star.
History aside, I’ve read some very boring imaginative leagues like this one (one recently with the wealthy robber barons getting together to save the world, as implausible as that is considering their rapacious and selfish tendencies) and it was boring. This book, however, is quite fun and has a lot of adventure. Glass intelligently weaves the real life backstory of the characters but isn’t slavish about it. He doesn’t break history so much as bend it into an entertaining tale. This could have been all talk and endless facts but fortunately the focus is all on the steampunk type of adventure.
As for the supernatural elements, they could have been over the top but work well here. This is a hint of steampunk and not a full on steampunk adventure. Since steampunk originates from roughly around that time, it makes a nice complement – just enough ‘advanced technology’ to be plausible but not outrageous. I appreciated that discipline in the world building.
The characters are well drawn. One has to appreciate the very meek and secretive Edison going on a mission with the bold and frank Annie Oakley. Short and crafty Houdini is paired up with the large and garrulous Jack Johnson. And other historical figures such as Admiral William T Sampson and his obstinate nature during the lead up to the Spanish American war and a very odd cameo by pale and creepy Rasputin (and his prophetic line to American Johnson, “much like your country underestimates my motherland!”
The art is smoothly done and tells the story well. The characters are cleanly drawn and easy to distinguish; they greatly resemble their real life counterparts. The color palette adds to the storytelling, keeping the backgrounds very muted and the main characters very colorful.
Rough Riders is by no means a perfect novel but it is a very enjoyable one. One part history, one part adventure, one part cowboy sci fi – it’s all fun. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.