Territory by Emma Bull – review

By on November 26, 2012

It’s no secret that I like mash-ups of genres.  When they’re done really well they become some of the most intriguing and original things that I’ve read.  So, of course, I was excited to get my hands on Emma Bull’s Territory.

The book opens with Doc Holliday gambling at a table in a saloon when his game is disrupted by someone plunking a young man who has just been shot right in the middle of the game.  The young man is treated for his gunshot wound, and shortly thereafter, a man walks into town asking if anyone has seen his horse.  This all takes place in Tombstone, Arizona, and the stranger who has just come to town is Jesse Fox.  His horse is named Sam.

Jesse claims that he is just on his way through to Mexico.  His horse got stolen, and that is how he ended up in Tombstone.  While he’s there, he meets up with an old friend of his, Chow Lung, and meets Mildred Benjamin, a widow who works as a typsetter for one of the local papers.  He also encounters the legendary Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and Morgan.  Of course, the events that befell the brothers Earp in Tombstone have since become practically American mythology.  They loom large in any narrative of the West.

This, of course, is a novel and, more importantly, it’s a novel by Emma Bull.  So, things are not exactly as they appear in Tombstone.  Magic is at work, and it’s not necessarily the kind of magic that anyone would be pleased to have in their community. There are a couple of murders, and there’s also the little matter of a hold-up which divested Wells Fargo out of a sizable sum of silver.  The entire town of Tombstone is abuzz with the rumors that Doc Holliday was involved, but, perhaps, there’s far more to the story than even the most conspiracy-minded citizen would believe.

Jesse is deeply in denial about his true nature and his purpose for lingering in Tombstone.  Mildred dreams of writing adventure stories for pulp magazines, a career that is considered unladylike, to say the least.  And the Earps? Well, the Earps practically run Tombstone by Wyatt’s sheer force of personality, if not by actual law, a discrepancy that Wyatt makes clear he intends to remedy.  Virgil is fully in line with the plan, Doc Holliday is as stalwart as ever, and Morgan seems to believe that Wyatt will always be there to bail him out of trouble.

Territory is Weird West at its very best.  The way that Bull writes evokes dusty border towns and desperate men ekeing out a living on the frontier in high style.  It reads like a solid adventure story should.  There’s violence and mystery and a little bit of romance thrown in, all blended with magic to make it an exceptional fantasy.   Forget worrying about suspension of disbelief; there’s never a part of reading this book where it feels like anything should be suspended, especially reading to the end.

As you can probably tell from earlier, Bull uses a mix of original characters and historical figures to bring her unique vision of Tombstone alive.  And while many would count Wyatt Earp and his brothers amongst the cadre of Great American Heroes, Bull’s vision of him is less than rosy.  Wyatt Earp is a driven man with his own vision for how Tombstone ought to be and his own methods for ensuring that folks fall in line with his plans.  It’s probably a more realistic depiction of him than you’re likely to see anywhere else in fiction dealing with the Wild West.

Doc Holliday also stands out, not just because he’s a key player, but because of the way he’s written.  Holliday tends to be the doomed romanticized figure in many of the stories surrounding Tombstone.  He’s still dying in Territory, of course, but he’s also a bit more frail than usual.  Doc is most often pulling himself through his days by his bootstraps, he’s still fiercely intelligent and a world-class hellraiser, but he’s a bit more limited in scope than usual.

Jesse Fox is a bit of an odd character.  He’s a long-haired drifter who dresses distinctively.  He seems to be polite, except for when he’s not, and he certainly collects an odd assortment of friends.  Chow Lung, a Chinese apothecary living in Tombstone, is chief among those friends.  Fox is also seen around some of the less savory of Tombstone’s denizens.

The real star of the story, though, is Mildred Benjamin.  She’s smart and fiesty and willing to use her status as a respectable woman to circumvent the system from the inside.  Her character evolves from being simply content with where she is to becoming deeply involved in the events unfolding around her.  She wants to make things better, and so she takes action so she can meet those events head-on.   While she does think about the ideal “lady” persona quite frequently, she doesn’t simply wilt away from challenges. Instead, she uses her knowledge to ensure that she makes things better.

Territory is well-paced.  It reads like a very good action story that just happens to take place in Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s and has a supernatural bent to it.  The fantasy elements are not an afterthought, by any means, they just blend so seamlessly into the story that it feels completely natural for magic to have not only existed but to be taking place in that setting.  Nothing gets lost in the telling, no plot threads unravel, nothing gets left hanging to twist in the wind.  It’s a tightly told story that’s beautifully written.

I devoured this book.  It hit all the happy Geek Girl Buttons that trip whenever I watch episodes of “Wild Wild West”.  There’s magic and mayhem and cowboys.  Honestly, what more could you need from a novel than that?  Handsome strangers? There’s one in there.  Preternaturally well-behaved horses? You’re going to love Sam.  Gunfights? Yup.  Trust me, it’s well worth reading.

I’d especially recommend this one for anyone who wants a book that has a strong heroine in it and likes a good action adventure story.  There’s not much gore or sex, just a well told story.

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