Jumpdrives & Cantrips

February 21, 2008, 2345
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

TerritoryIt’s a pity that Emma Bull isn’t a more prolific novelist, because her writing is lyrical, elegant, and exceptionally consumable. She has said that “Creativity isn’t some rare quality reserved for annointed artists; it’s what humans do, every day, all the time.” It’s true, and she is one of those writers who puts her creativity to work. Her first novel, 1987’s War for the Oaks, is credited partly for the advent of the urban fantasy subgenre and remains one of her most well known books.

Territory combines history and magic to produce a “secret history” of Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. Bull fills in the stories we don’t know, the sections that are magical and cross gendered and cultural boundaries of the time. In doing so, parts of the story venture into the largely unwritten histories of women and the Chinese community. The novel is set prior to the shootout at the OK Corral and focuses on extraordinarily portrayed ordinary people caught in the midst of a magical and social battle for power between the legendary Wyatt Earp and outlaw John Ringo.

Jesse Fox is a horse trainer in denial of his own latent magical ability, lately of San Francisco. Mildred Benjamin is a widow and aspiring writer working for one of the local papers who befriends the Earp family’s women. And Doc Holliday is a dentist with consumption, a contrary supporter of Wyatt. This triad of voices forms the lens through which we experience Bull’s imagined Tombstone, populated with cowboys, rustlers, gamblers, miners, and the politically ambitious.

Jesse gets held in Tombstone than expected when a friend of his, who is a Chinese physician and sorcerer, enlists his help for magical reasons. He becomes caught up in the antagonism between Wyatt Earp and John Ringo, and also in a budding romance with Mildred. There is also the little detail of a stagecoach holdup Holliday is suspected of participating in, a gruesome magical warning, land-grabs by the mining company, and a murdered prostitute. By the end of the book, the disparate threads weave together into an open resolution (after the requisite gunfight), leaving room for another story to follow.

The magic starts off understated, growing to a pervasive presence by the end of the book. Power is defined by the land, running through it like the lines of silver below the ground level, and by social alliances. Territory is the source of magic here, and as Jesse develops an uneasy acceptance of his magical abilities, he must claim his own. I find this a fascinating statement on the power differentials of people in the society, and I notice that while women sense the power, as of yet none of the women have actively used it.

The frontier setting produces an ideal milieu to explore man’s power, and the intersection of place and person. I noted as well the portrayal of “the natural” throughout the course of the book. To be honest, so many themes of post-modern literature are present here that any literary types could have a field day without even trying. It’s a rare writer who can be so blithely thought-provoking without making the story dry enough to crumble the good parts to dust.

Territory has such great flow that you nearly breathe in the words from the page. My consolation in finishing is that there will be another volume. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Emma Bull ends up with a new subgenre on her hands (frontier fantasy, perhaps?), and hopefully some major recognition. This book is an amazing one, and one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long while.

Bull, Emma. Territory. New York: Tor, 2007. 318 pages. $31.00 (Canadian), hardcover.


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