Last night I finally finished Bill Swiggs’ adventure story, Blood in the Dust — I was interrupted by life-threatening illness and a global pandemic, which gives you an idea of the magnitude of things needed to interfere with a read like this.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that it’s a ‘cracking read’, and this description is only reinforced by the thrilling climax of the book.
To set the scene for you: the story takes place in 1853, in Victoria, a fledgeling state in a young Australia, beginning to find its feet as a colony experiencing a gold rush, with the confusion, hardship and lawlessness which comes with that. While Swiggs takes us right to the heart of a key episode in Australia’s history, the miners’ revolt against colonial authority which became known as the Eureka Stockade, that’s not central to the tale, which is really about a murderous outlaw, Warrigal Anderson, and his propensity to take advantage of the relative anarchy of those times.
For me, it was this which made the book completely gripping: the ‘badness’ of a bad man, a man without conscience, whose only passion is for gold, who treats murder as just another step on the way to personal gratification. But in raiding a small homestead in the Victorian outback, leaving the parents of Toby and Paddy O'Rourke dead, Anderson meets his match — Toby grows rapidly into a man, his life moulded by hardship, and he and his brother set out to restore their family’s fortunes.
It’s the chapters featuring Anderson, who leaves behind him a trail of devastation and death, which held me tightly to the page: you know that he must be stopped, that he will be stopped, but how, and by whom? Right to the last, his murderous streak seems to give him the upper hand. When he further alienates the native Aborigines who have misguidedly helped him with his evildoings, the pace of the story builds to a heart-thumping speed and the final confrontation is both action-packed and satisfying.
In fact, one of the things Swiggs does well — and he is clearly an author to be watched — is ‘action scenes’. Too often in novels of this kind the physical action is mishandled and comes across as clumsy and unclear, if not unreal. But the second-by-second lowdown in the climactic scene of Blood in the Dust made me hold my breath, feel the pain, sense the water, and finally experience the moment of release when everything comes together.
If you love Wilbur Smith-type stories, old-fashioned action yarns with a strong morality which grip you right to the end, you’ll love this one!