I’d said I wasn’t going to blog this week, but I came across a true delight last night, and I must share it.
As a reader, I lean more toward science fiction, but a well-written fantasy novel is a delight, and Emma Bull‘s Territory kept me up half the night. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Territory is the legend of the OK Corral, with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton, naturally, and it holds all the dust and fire and bullets, all the frontier law-making and -breaking, the cattle rustling and gun slingers, of a good western. Only it mixes in a heady brew of sorcery, with a daub of American and Chinese mysticism, like spices that bring out the flavor of the brew and transform it into something new.
Bull sneaks up on you. I am a long-time reader and there aren’t a lot of books that sink their hooks in and grab hold without my being aware of what’s happening. But she pulled me in. There’s not a single false note in this book. The magic is handled deftly, the characters achingly real and believable. The magic sneaks up on you, too. It’s not merely tacked-on pyrotechnics. Rather, it manifests itself gradually, as a raw and elemental force woven so naturally through the story that ultimately it seems unthinkable to view the original legend without the magic mixed in.
Territory is told primarily from the viewpoints of three characters. Jesse Fox is a drifter summoned to Tombstone by an old friend, Chow Lung, a Chinese sorcerer and physician who seeks to protect the town against the powerful evil forces gathering there. Throughout much of the book, Jesse struggles to keep at bay his own supernatural abilities. He had a ringside seat at the inexorable destruction of his beloved sister, due to her own power and sensitivity to the supernatural.
Mildred Benjamin, a widow whose husband has recently died, is a copyeditor-cum-reporter at a local newspaper and secretly, a fiction writer for a deliciously trashy fiction tabloid. One of the delights of this book is that the “ordinary” people are no less extraordinary than the conjurers and magicians. Mildred is levelheaded and practical. She is no sorceress, to be swallowed by earth, flame, and water, as Jesse is. But in Bull’s hands, her arc is equally gripping. Bull portrays her with a clear and unyielding vision of the difficulties women faced in the American west. Mildred comes into her own for the first time in a difficult, lawless time. She is no fainting damsel. Mildred is thrown into town life at large by her husband’s death, and later flung into dangerous and eldritch happenings by hidden sorcerers’ machinations. And she finds herself equal to the task.
The other viewpoint character is Doc Holliday. Earp and Holliday, as the two antagonists, are also compelling characters. Doc Holliday is a consumptive, slowly dying, and kept alive only by Wyatt’s own version of magic — or is Wyatt only using him, and slowly killing him? Yet they are close friends whose ties reach back over the years, and you sense that Earp’s hold on Holliday is in one sense also Holliday’s hold on Earp. Holliday is acerbic, amoral, and self-destructive, but you can’t help but like him anyway, and even Earp a little, when you see him through Doc’s eyes.
Then there are the secondary characters, all delightful and skillfully drawn. My favorite is Lung. He is powerful, irascible, and very funny, a Chinese immigrant to the barbaric west, who is baffled by Jesse’s struggle over science versus magic. To him, medicine and magic are part of the same system. And the women of Mildred’s acquaintance: Kate Holliday, who is herself a force of nature, and the Earp wives, downtrodden, kept isolated by their husbands and shunned by Tombstone’s social circle. They are powerless and victimized and it would be easy for Bull to treat them as ciphers. But they come to life in Bull’s hands as Mildred befriends them, and thus we not only experience a more thoughtful view of power in domestic and family relations; we also learn much more about the Earps and the evil they are capable of — and why.
As a writer, I am in awe of Bull’s craft. She reaches deep and grabs hold of something raw, real, and fabulous. As a reader, I am besotted with the world and the characters. She is a master of her craft. I’m so ready for the sequel I can’t stand it! Why isn’t it finished right now?? Auuuggh!
Grade: A+. With Territory, Bull crafts a dangerous, rich portrait of the old west, transformed by elemental magic, exotic and familiar at once. Highly recommended.
Update: I belatedly note from some of the Amazon reader reviews that one or two readers are mildly let down when they discover that the the famous shootout doesn’t happen in this book. Be forewarned–Territory is clearly the first of two, and the shootout will undoubtedly occur in the second.