Review: Black Hills

Posted: October 20, 2010 by in Books We Like...and Hate (3/5 single_star) Meta: Dan Simmons, Alternate Historical Fiction

Right from the moment you pick up a Dan Simmons novel and first set eyes upon the page, you know you’re in for a whole new kind of reading experience. It took me an entire paragraph (yes, the first one, because it’s just that obvious) to realize this would be the case. There is detail, flow and a sense of perfection in the way Simmons has crafted the first scene in BLACK HILLS (Amazon), and I have to admit that I readily gobbled down every delicious bite of it. What’s more, I found that I continued to devour the pages by great sheaves despite the growing concerns niggling at the back of my neck.

Dude can write.

Paha Sapa is the promised hero of BLACK HILLS, and we get him in full measure. The story starts with the young Sioux boy being jolted to his core by the invasion of a white man’s ghost. But this isn’t just any white man. It’s General George Armstrong Custer, who has just been killed in his famous Last Stand against the American Indians. In the confusion and chaos of the battle, Paha Sapa (Sioux for “Black Hills”) rolls and flops on the ground as the ghost asserts itself within him. In time, Paha Sapa gains control and returns to his father with the prattling voice of this white man echoing in his skull.

We see Paha Sapa’s life as it stretches across time, covering a vast portion of the United State’s history. The time of his youth is fraught with danger; from continued ranged attacks by the ever-expanding white settlers and the soldiers protecting them, to the frantic attempts of Chief Crazy Horse to know his future from Paha Sapa’s forward-looking visions. The narrative also carries us into his adult life, through times of economic depression, through the great Dust Bowl, and finally into his marriage and fatherhood. Then last–with the story line that most intrigued me–we read of Paha Sapa as a dying senior, working as a powder man on nothing less than the slowly emerging face of Mount Rushmore–a monument which he plans to utterly destroy.

Simmons weaves us through this man’s life, jumping from one timeline to the next, and paints a picture both beautiful and sublime. At several points we also get some of what the general has been raving about for so long as Paha Sapa eventually comes to understand the white man’s language. These sections are constructed as the General speaking to his beloved wife, of the memories they have made and the times they have shared, while he supposedly lays in an extended healing-darkness after what he can only assume has been a grievous wounding at the Battle of the Greasy Grass.

So much goodness, and as I said I found that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. At various times I would lift my head and stop to think a moment, forcing myself to look at the story as a reviewer duly should, and though I found some concerns and difficulties waiting for me there, I very easily dove right back in and lost myself in the pages once again.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and in this case it really is too bad.

Multiple times over.

Let me make something perfectly clear: when you write a story (Take notes people. I’m only going to say this once.) you are, very literally, making promises to your readers.

When we see that a ghost has chosen to inhabit our main character, we expect that this is going to have some impact upon him. BLACK HILLS doesn’t do this.

When we see focused intent within our character, driving him toward a particular purpose, we expect that he will either see it to fulfillment or turn from it for justifiable reasons. BLACK HILLS doesn’t do that either.

And when we read those first words on that first page, we expect an ending. We expect that we’ll have made the journey, and enjoyed the trip, and that the time we spent within its pages has been well spent. All of these things are important. But BLACK HILLS doesn’t even attempt do this.

Right from the moment you pick up a Dan Simmonsnovel and first set eyes upon the page, you know you're in for a whole new kind of reading experience in BLACK HILLS.

BLACK HILLS is not a novel. It’s a history, plain and simple. Have you ever watched a movie that’s based on historical events, and at the “end” instead of including something even approximating a real ending they just have an explanation session about who died and who lived and what the live ones are doing now? (No, zombies do not count here.) I’m good with additional facts. I really am. It’s the lack of an ending that just kills me. (Great example: Valkyrie. Awesome movie. No ending.) This book is exactly like that.

But it gets even worse.

Due to the extreme backlash that would result upon my person from the Great Overlords of the Elite were I to divulge any specifics from the “end” of Black Hills, I shall instead parrot an early review for Towers of Midnight (which I recently read over at Tor) and give you only my responses while reading such specifics.

1) Ooh! Here it comes, everyone! “Hold on to your butts.” (Loads of meaningless points here for knowing the quote on that last one)
2) Uh… what?
3) Are you freaking kidding me?
4) Okay, so where is this going now?
5) Well, that sucks.
6) “Coincidence? I think NOT!” (Double those meaningless bonus points for knowing this one)
7) Oh… wow. What just happened? Seriously. I’m completely lost.
8) The end? Alllll right…

When I sat down to write this review, I had a song running through my head that just wouldn’t quit. So, I jumped over to YouTube and found that the song did indeed say it all. Ah, what insight we can receive from the Naked Eyes. They say it best: Promises, promises. Indeed.

As I mentioned above, this is a history book. A very well-written history book, granted, but a history book nonetheless. If you like history and only care about history, then you will very easily be able to love this book. Me, I like stories. When I read a novel, I expect story. I expect an ending. I expect closure. And I got none of those here.

This comment from the Acknowledgments page at the back of the book is the very epitome of the book:

“A special thanks here to the members of the Dan Simmons Forum at for their help on the long and amusing chase through original newspaper accounts and other printed materials to discover which way Mr. Ferris’s original wheel rotated.”

If this is the kind of stuff you’re willing to just kill for, READ THIS BOOK.

If not (and I mean “not” in the most meager of senses possible) “LEAVE NOW AND NEVER COME BACK!” (Triple those meaningless bonus points if you get this last one as well)

BookInTenWords: One Indian’s battle to defeat the white man. Just kidding.

  • Recommended Age: 18+ for content
  • Language: Two or three minor characters spout off for a bit each
  • Violence: Little. There is a major war, but no real detail.
  • Sex: Two scenes, both pointless to the story and reminisced by General Custer

Final note: Though I will absolutely try reading another Dan Simmons novel (probably an old one), I plan on staying away from anything of his that looks too historical in nature. I just don’t think I could handle another let down like this.


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