--U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp
Book Report # 73: Emma Bull, Territory
I honestly think Em is one of the best (if not the best) fantasy writers working in English today, and this book is worthy of her. It's soft-spoken and subtle and relentlessly well-written and well-characterized, replete with some starling and beautiful use of language without ever losing the tone of the times. (Of course, any book with John Henry Holiday, DDS, in it is likely to win my heart as long as he's handled well, as those of you who have read the excerpt from One-Eyed Jack and the Suicide King up at Subterranean have probably figured out by now.**)
Territory is not a book about the Gunfight Down The Block from the O.K. Corral***.
What it is is a painstakingly well-researched historical fantasy that explores many aspects of the American West without foolish romanticization. It manages not to demonize the McLaurys or the Clantons, or hagiographize or demonize the Earps. (Well, okay, Wyatt takes it in the face, but really, it's not undeserved.) Also, Bull gets Doc Holliday in ways I'm not used to seeing in fiction. I got to write the legendary Doc, when I did it. This is the real thing.
Territory touches on town politics, ranch politics, the uneasy balance between the whites and colored folk and Chinese, the place of women who came West and found (in contravention of modern Libertarian fantasies about what happens to women in frontier societies) that they were freer and more respected for their abilities than they ever had been in the "civilized" east. Bull gives the sentence "You come West to be whoever you say you are,"* to Tombstone Nugget publisher Harry Woods, and that forms a thematic core around which the book revolves.
Because Territory is a book about boundaries, about lines drawn, about owning what you are and what you choose, and about how what you are and what you choose owns you. And its protagonists--Mrs. David Benjamin, Mr. Jesse Fox, and Dr. John Holliday--are all people who are choosing where they will stand and what they will defend, and facing up to what it's going to cost them.
Man, this is good.
I have two quibbles. One is that I have a feeling this is yet another untelegraphed first-half-of-the-story such as publishers currently love to inflict upon us poor easily frustrated readers, as the conclusion of the book (and it does have a conclusion, or at least a hesitating place) drawns of rather short of resolution, so it feels like the end of the first half of a play rather than the complete story. (Having emailed the author and made big eyes at her, I can that my suspicion is correct, and there is more to come.) The other quibble is that it feels as if there are a couple of narrative chunks missing towards the end of this volume--specifically, I wanted two more scenes between Doc and Kate Holliday (best Kate Elder in the history of fiction, by the way); and one more scene with Mrs. Benjamin.
However, I suspect I am not going to read a better novel this year.
*I am paraphrasing, because I did not make note of the page the comment was on
**I am also very fond of a certain short story by Em's husband, Will Shetterly, entitled "Taken He Cannot Be," which involved Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, John Ringo, and a unicorn.
Yep, you read that right the first time.
*** A pretty good levelheaded writeup on the Gunfight here. and Some forensics here.