Tuesday, October 14, 2008
World Fantasy Award Nominee: Territory
Nominated for the 2008 World Fantasy Award: Novel
Does the world have enough takes on the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the town of Tombstone? Do we really need another one?
When it is written by Emma Bull the answer is yes.
Set in 1881, sometime before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Territory features all of the characters readers would expect: Wyatt, Doc, the Clantons, Johnny Ringo, the Earp brothers, and the wives of the Earps. And yet, these are not the principal characters of Territory. Emma Bull won't do the obvious here. The leads are Jesse Fox and Mildred Benjamin.
Mildred works in one of Tombstone's newspapers as a typesetter. She is a widow and secretly writes adventure stories. Jesse Fox comes to town as a drifter, having shot a man trying to steal his horse, Sam. Jesse is more than just a drifter, of course, he was educated in the East, has a Chinese friend (and consider the history of the Chinese in America and in building the transcontinental railroad - this friendship is remarkable), and has something of a secret.
Bull dances around the edges of Tombstone, bringing Mildred and Jesse through the lives of the Earps and Johnny Ringo's gang. Through Mildred we see the other side of the Earps: the women. Through the women we get a completely different Tombstone story, one which generally gets lost in the glamour of Wyatt Earp. Through Jesse we see another side to Johnny Ringo and the harsher side of Wyatt.
Emma Bull makes Tombstone come alive in ways that the movies don't, and creates a visceral experience with Territory. Tombstone lives and breathes here. She also infuses the story with a special kind of magic that twists the Tombstone story into something else entirely.
Territory is not simply a Western and is not simply Tombstone told from other perspectives. Jesse Fox possesses a form of Earth Magic and he isn't the only magician in Tombstone. Who the others are will be left for the reader to discover, but this magic brings an entirely new dimension to the Tombstone story while somehow staying faithful to the Tombstone story that knowledgeable readers will understand.
Let's not mince words here. Territory is an outstanding novel. It is so good that having only read two of the World Fantasy nominated novels, I would be shocked to find a better one than this.
Emma Bull blends historical figures and events with magic and a story of her own imagination and tells the story in plain language and keeps the reader in thrall to her storytelling.
Oh, and the one character perspective I haven't mentioned yet: Doc Holliday. Whether or not there is historical evidence on how Doc spoke and what the cadence of his dialogue should be, Emma Bull absolutely nails the reader's expectation of Doc Holliday. Moreover, at no time does this characterization feel like cliche or an aping of Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc in the film Tombstone. It would have been easy for Bull to fall into that trap, but Bull's Doc Holliday feels authentic. Bull gets into Doc's head.
Readers should show up simply for Bull's portrayal of Doc Holliday, but they should stay for the rest of the show. Emma Bull is the real deal and she delivers the goods here.