Roth-Steyr by Simon Bestwick was first published by Black Shuck Books in October 2020 as one of their Signature Novellas. It’s just been reissued with a brand new cover design, as have most of the Signature range.
Okay, to get the title out of the way first – the Roth-Steyr is a gun. To be more specific, it’s a semi-automatic pistol used primarily by Austro-Hungarian cavalry in the early years of last century, and if you need to know any more than that then I suggest Wikipedia.
Valerie Varden works as a morgue technician in Manchester and one day the arrival of a new corpse turns her world upside down. The man has been shot with a Roth-Steyr pistol, which holds a special significance for Valerie. Valerie’s real name is Countess Valerie Elisabeth Franzsiska von Bradenstein-Vršovci (you can see why she changed it). Varden is just her latest identity. She is an immortal, formerly a member, along with brother Ulrich, of the Hawk-hunters, an Austro-Hungarian group locked in eternal combat with a rival faction known as the Black Eagles, and the only way these immortals can be killed is with a Roth-Steyr. Long ago Valerie elected to give up this futile struggle, made even more so by the fall of the Habsburgs, and make a life for herself, finding a role in the world and love with Louise, but it appears that her former friends and enemies are not going to let her sit this one out.
In the abstract this reminded me of Highlander, only the immortals involved are Austro-Hungarian nobility and members of their officer corps. And in the abstract it all sounds slightly absurd, but Bestwick is a master of detail and groundwork. Valerie is his spokesperson, the book a conversation she has with herself, relating the details of her life. It takes in a wealth of fascinating historical detail, including the story of Prince Rudolph and Mayerling, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the First World War and what came after. In may ways the book offers us a potted history of Middle Europe in the twentieth century. Valerie’s training for her role, including a final test which should probably come with a trigger warning, is horribly convincing, a grim account of what is required from those who serve, with trainer Horváth as the Austrian equivalent of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, larger than life and twice as nasty.
There’s also an outré side to things courtesy of The Sindelar Gate, an other dimensional portal which candidates for immortality must pass through to have their DNA altered, something that can and frequently does go disastrously wrong. In his depiction of passage through the Gate, Bestwick convincingly portrays the immensity of this terrible void and the incomprehensible creatures that inhabit it. Playing counterpoint to this is the creepy Doctor Sindelar, ostensibly the discoverer of the Gate, and his sinister monkish attendants, whose lack of humanity comes over in a way that is thoroughly unsettling and suggests they are the ones pulling the strings. Through such scenes Bestwick adds a genuine note of horror and the numinous to the text, an almost Lovecraftian dimension.
And in Valerie Varden Bestwick gives us an engaging and likeable protagonist, someone who has the moral fibre to do terrible things simply to survive, while never deluding herself that there is anything noble to her actions. While she may be immortal, she has not shed her humanity. We get to know her through her love for Louise, her attitude to her job and what it means to her, the happy memories she has of the past, and the sadness she feels at estrangement from the friends and brothers in arms who once meant so much to her, a whole world she has lost to the relentless passage of time.
Underlying all this is a subtext about those who cannot let go the grievances of the past. There is no point to the ongoing war between Black Eagles and Hawk-hunters, but Valerie’s brother Ulrich and the others simply can’t let go of the struggle; it has become the thing that gives their life meaning and purpose. Contrarily Valerie has found something else, a possible path to redemption through the love of a good woman and employment in a role that lets her give something back to others. These opposing viewpoints are played out in the book’s final confrontation.
Roth-Steyr is a marvellous story, one that is both informative and emotionally gratifying, the work of a writer operating at close to the full extent of his imaginative powers, pursuing personal obsessions and turning them into art.
Thank you so much, Pete!