It’s a good thing Tombstone, Arizona is a small town, because in Territory, by Emma Bull, you seem to meet all of them. The four Earp brothers, their wives, a daughter, Doc Holliday and his common-law wife, Kate Elder. Ike and Billy Clanton, John Ringo and his various rustler friends. In the first 200 pages, while all these people are being introduced, my feeble social recognition circuits were getting a workout.
In the middle of this, we meet Mildred Benjamin, a widow making her living as a typesetter at one of the local papers and quietly selling tales of Western adventure to magazines back East. Her paths cross with Jesse Fox, a sometime horse trainer, who rode in to find out what happened to the kid who tried to steal his horse. Jesse meets his old friend, Dr. Chow Lung, who insists that Jesse has to stop denying that he can use magic.
The magic–based on Chinese geomancy, or feng shui–was portrayed convincingly. There’s a great scene where Jesse descends into the earth to undo the magic of a dead girl. I liked the sensations of strength and weakness Doc Holliday felt. I liked the lightning prickle and the doubled image of Wyatt Earp bending over Doc Holliday at a dance late in the story. But by the end, it began to feel like just about all the gunslingers in town were either sorcerers or bound by magic alliances to a sorcerer.
The advantage of a historical setting is the level of detail you have available to make your setting real. The downside is risking the readers who know it all picking it apart. Speaking as a reader who doesn’t know much Western history, I’m sure I would have gotten more from the story if I knew more about The Matter of Tombstone than one Star Trek episode.
For me what really carried the book were Mildred and Jesse. Millie befriends the Mrs. Earps and talks about storytelling with them. She becomes a reporter, which gives her the perfect excuse to pry into the complex business of Tombstone. The funniest aspect of her being a writer is when Jesse tells her that magic is real, and she thinks he’s patronizing her for making things up. Jesse is an intriguing character. My favorite scene with him is when he’s playing to lose a poker game to rid himself of a silver charm.
It’s pretty much self-contained, but it still feels like it stops short. I hope it doesn’t take her another ten years to write the next one.
Tomorrow: Our Cosmic Origins.
Monday: “Recovering Apollo 8.”