Regardless of what I say about this book, the following sentence will either sell you or not. Ready? Here goes. Territory by Emma Bull is a fantasy novel, set in the wild West. No, seriously. It’s set in Tombstone. The characters include Doc Holliday and his woman, most of the Earp clan, and pretty much everyone else who was involved in the shootout at the O.K. Corral. And guess what? Some of them are sorcerers.
Jesse Fox (the main characters are fictional) arrives in Tombstone in the midst of turmoil. There’s been an attempted robbery of a stagecoach and consequent murder of two men, and one of the escaping would-be bandits has stolen his horse. He shoots the guy, who eventually dies, and retrieves his horse, but gets caught up in the subsequent mess before he can leave continue on his way.Turns out a friend of his, Chow Lung, a Chinese magician, is in town, and he wants Jesse to use his latent-but-denied powers to set things straight in Tombstone. Somebody’s been using magic to control events (and people’s lives), and Jesse and Lung have to figure out who. It’s not really giving much away to say that the ultimate culprit is pretty obvious. What’s interesting is that there are various other individuals in town who have the power but are unaware of it, or how to use it. One such is Mildred Benjamin, an attractive widow who works as a typesetter for The Nugget by day and as a writer of dime serial novels by night. She and Jesse strike up an uneasy friendship, and she uses her developing skills as a reporter to unravel the complex thread of events and murders that surround the attempted stagecoach robbery. The ultimate “showdown” is not one of guns, but one of power. Lines are drawn, and the stage is set, to some degree, for the events of the famous shootout.
The biggest problem with Territory comes from the author’s attempts to make the thing a sort of mystery. For the first third of the novel, the reader is picking through information and learning along with the characters, and it’s all very confusing. The second third irons itself out a bit and focuses on other things, so it’s more comfortable, and then the final third gets all convoluted again. I hesitate to say that there are too many threads; I think it’s more an issue of how those threads are handled. For instance: the plot is moving along, and we are satisfied with the identity of the main perpetrator of various deeds. Then, suddenly, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, we are thrown the curveball of learning that someone else who has been merely peripheral up to this point has these magical powers as well, and may actually have been responsible for one previous deed in particular. I’m not sure why Ms. Bull got so enthusiastic about making every other person in Tombstone a magician, but I didn’t personally feel that it was necessary. It’s hard for me to admit that the plot of a novel is too convoluted: one of my favorite books is The Count of Monte Christo, which is sort of famously tangled, and that’s part of what I love about it. But here, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t working for me.
What was working, and what I always enjoy about magic in novels, is the way in which an individual author chooses to manifest the magic. Is it related to light, animals, water, will, or what? In this case, it’s sort of earth magic. Tombstone is a silver mining town, and so the “magicians” drawn there are brought, whether or not they know it, by the energies in the earth itself. The earth is used for important “spells,” and the characters feel a strong connection to the land. It’s not the most original manifestation, but it worked well within the framework of this story.
So yeah. Cowboys plus magic plus mystery. A little bit of a mess plot-wise, reasonably entertaining character-wise, and actually really interesting in terms of the use of the historical elements present. I would suggest that if you don’t know much about Tombstone, Holliday, Earp, and the famous shootout (like me), you might want to hit up Wikipedia before reading Territory. Or watch Tombstone, or something. Speaking of which, I need to go put that on my Netflix queue. Pardon me.