Emma Bull,
(Tor, 2007)

There are now less than a handful of authors whose hardcovers I will pick up without reading at least to the second chapter. Emma Bull is one of that handful. She's only produced a few books in her literary career, but I find her writing to be as finely honed as Damascus steel -- with a terrible beauty to match.

If I had checked and realized that Territory was a Western, I might not even have read it. That would have been a big mistake.

Most people who know my book habits would describe me as a voracious reader. If I like a book, I'll devour it in one sitting. In this case, I took a week to drink in the setting and the people, and to occasionally read back to savor an earlier passage.

Territory takes place in Tombstone, Ariz., circa 1881. The town is barely in its toddler stage, born of greed and men's need to find a new life.

Bull's point-of-view characters are Mildred Benjamin, a recent widow who works as a typesetter for the local newspaper and writes serial fiction on the side; and Jesse Fox, an educated drifter from the East who started out training to be a mining engineer 'til he discovered he had a talent for horse training.

Fox has been told by a Chinese physician, Chow Lung, that he has a gift for magic and should use it. Until now, Fox has postponed that suggestion.

Mildred and Fox both discover there is dark magic afoot in Tombstone. More than one magician is fighting over the land rights. For certain, they know that one of those dark magicians is Wyatt Earp, brother to Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp.

Along the way, we experience Western life firsthand. Ironically, fire breaks out in one of the hotels while the town's mayor is away trying to purchase a fire wagon for the town. The mining company is fighting folks with claims in town (including Mildred Benjamin) so they can acquire more space. As an aside note, President Garfield has been assassinated. News comes via the telegraph -- not the "up close and personal" medium of television.

There's a mystery woven tightly into this fantasy landscape. Characters are well written and the descriptions literally take you there -- to the point of tasting smoke and dirt when the fire first breaks out. The story's spin is one that's not commonly told -- and an interesting one. Territory is hard to put down, but I found myself doing that -- and re-reading earlier passages -- because I wanted to make this one last. This is one of the best fantasy novels I have read in a long time.

History purists, beware: Territory doesn't quite match the historical accounts; however, we all know history is written by the victors. Clanton, who survived the OK Corral, unsuccessfully tried to prosecute Wyatt Earp and companions for murder. There are two sides to the story, and Bull's version definitely paints Earp with a dark brush.

review by
Becky Kyle

10 May 2008

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