28 July 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Emma Bull

by Faren Miller

from Locus Magazine, July 2007

Territory, Emma Bull (Tor 978-0-312-85735-6, $24.95, 318pp, hc) July 2007. Cover by John Jude Palencar.

In a world where a mediocre pop star's 15 minutes of fame can generate legends, every century of history is bound to spawn more than one mythos. In America, the Wild West remains one of the most powerful, with its classic events (the battle for the Alamo, the Gunfight at the OK Corral) and a cast of larger-than-life characters like the Earps, the Clantons, and Doc Holliday, along with more generic faithful wives, floozies, politically incorrect Natives, etc. There's ample material for the clash of heroes, and any Boomer familiar with the early days of television has seen loads of melodramas pitting White Hats against Black amid thrilling scenery. What's less common in these tales is a sense of all-pervasive magic, not the exclusive domain of Native American ritual but a force available to anyone strong enough to grasp it... or weak enough to yield to its siren song.

In Territory, Emma Bull keeps near her own home ground (Tucson) and looks back at events leading up to the notable clash of Earps and Clantons in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, 1881. Her version is close enough to modern times, with its railroads, telegrams, daguerreotype photos, and serialized "penny dreadfuls," yet beneath the boomtown expansionism and familiar crises like shootings and stagecoach robbery lurk far older forces, occult powers for good or ill. Although their interaction with humans may seem closer to the Arthurian Mythos than to Lovecraft's tales of Cthulhu, the overall effect is not some strained American version of the European mythology in Bull's masterful War for the Oaks. She even brings in some Chinese ideas about magic, for a bold mingling of West and Far East, legends old and relatively new — all the way, seeming to know exactly what she's doing.

Jesse Fox is a newcomer, a shabby drifter with dark spectacles ("as if the light of day was too much for him"). Mildred Benjamin has already been in Tombstone for a year, a widow who works at the town paper when she's not writing penny dreadfuls accredited to "M.E. Benjamin." Even though she considers herself a rational modern woman, something about her first encounter with Jesse gives her the chills. Jesse himself thinks he's just passing through, briefly pausing on his way from Colorado to Mexico to see his old friend, Lung the Chinese physician. But these three inserted characters will turn out to be both witness to and involved with the secret saga of Doc, Wyatt, and other big names whose stories we only think we know.

Jesse and his sister had felt the touch of magic when they lived back on the east coast, much as he'd like to deny it, while Mildred (whose grandmother had a knack for seeing omens) came to the Territory in a fruitless attempt "to outrun predestination, supernatural or otherwise." Only Lung fully acknowledges the presence of the uncanny, in his own culture's terms, scorning the ignorance of the "barbarians" who surround him now. Still, some others find it hard not to sense what they'd prefer to ignore.

When Mildred visits the Earp brothers' household, where wives are busy at domestic tasks, she intuits something disturbing beneath the cosy facade: "The women in the parlor, busy with real, sensible work, had seemed so content. It was false, paint over rust. There was fear here, and secrets. The devil on the porch had been her first warning." Jesse, engaged in taming a recalcitrant horse (his primary profession), sees a likeness between its behavior and his own: "This thing that he had, that Lung had forced him to admit to, was his master. It was his own strength he struggled against when he fought it. He could deny it, but the power in him would only bring him to his knees again."

Another observant woman, Holiday's partner Kate, tries to convince Doc that he's the victim of "hoodoo," having spent years in the thrall of a "black magician." Though he rages against such talk and desperately tries to cling to the notion that "Magic was for ignorant men and gamblers," inwardly he knows she's right. A lawman famed for his ability to walk through a hail of gunfire without getting shot, or to sniff out an enemy through no rational means, has to possess some special power. Here Bull exposes the darker side of the fictional ploy that has kept so many Western heroes invulnerable.

She also portrays magic — from minor conjuries to the most ambitious sorcery — as a product of the land itself, based in the soil, mineral veins, and deep waters of the Territory, just as the supernatural beings and forces that Lung remembers from childhood were innate to his own homeland. There's no need for Arthuriana's mossy oaks or craggy Celtic moors to call up a spell, connect with local spirits, and provide the setting for a legendary clash of powers. As Territory evokes the substance and spirit of old Arizona beneath what was slowly becoming a tamer West, it transforms the tropes of the Western to a degree that goes beyond the category of "genre hybrid" to achieve a power very much its own.

Read more! This is one of twenty reviews from the July 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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