Territory broke new ground for me. I have long been a fan of realistic western fiction, the grittier the better, but have never much enjoyed fantasy writing of the type filled with magicians, superheroes, or magic kingdoms. Fortunately, this time my love for both factual and fictional accounts of the Earp brothers, and their association with Doc Holliday, overrode my reluctance to spend reading time on the fantasy genre. That is because Emma Bull has pulled off what I would have considered impossible before reading Territory: a near perfect blending of a realistic western with a healthy dose of magic thrown into the mix.
That Bull’s use of magic is key to the development of her novel’s plot and characters but still not overdone, makes for an enjoyably off-center look at some real-life characters already very familiar to fans of Old West novels. The action all takes place in and around Tombstone, Arizona, just a few months before the infamous (and still mysterious) “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” as all the usual suspects gather there to feed on the hatred they feel for each other.
On the one side are Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and the equally famous dentist who calls himself Doc Holliday. On the other side are gunslinger Johnny Ringo and the Clanton and McClaury brothers, a bunch of part-time cowboys and rustlers. What makes this portrayal of the historical events of the day so different is that several of the key players have more than simple charisma working in their favor; they are secret magicians with the power to influence events as much with their minds as with their pistols.
Into this mix, Bull blends several fictional characters that get caught up in the events of the day. Jesse Fox, making his way to Mexico where he hopes to make a living breaking wild horses, stops in Tombstone to see his old friend from San Francisco, Chow Lung. Fox knows deep-down that his Chinese friend has unusual powers but is reluctant to admit it even to himself. Little does he know that Chow Lung has called him to Tombstone using some of that same magic so that the two can investigate the evil that has entered the town. Mildred, recently widowed, works in one of Tombstone’s daily newspapers as a typesetter but is the glue that holds the little paper together. When Jesse Fox comes into the office one day, they inadvertently begin a partnership that will change both their lives forever.
Bull takes the time to build a realistic setting within which she develops her characters and their motivations. Atmospherically, everything will seem so familiar to fans of the western genre that, when fantasy replaces realism, they will hardly notice the jolt. Fantasy and magic are well used in order to explore a world on the edge, one in which physical strength and domination are key elements in local politics and in the everyday lives of all of Tombstone’s citizens.
This one is fun, and it would be a shame if those who loathe either western fiction or fantasy fiction were to miss it. Give it a shot.
Rated at: 4.0