I do not like Westerns, at least the ones I was forced to endure growing up. All my dad would do on lazy weekend afternoons was to turn to a UHF channel (before the days of satellite TV, as cable lines didn't extend into our neighborhood back in the 1980s) and watch some shoot 'em up Cowboys and Indians flick. Often a John Wayne flick, but not necessarily, all I could tell from watching all of those movie studio-blue backdrops is that one man wore a white hat and was good, while the ones wearing the black hats were often called "varmints" and were shot after a chase up a steep hillside, or perhaps there'd be some nameless "Indians" that would attack for whatever reason. So macho, so black-and-white, so...boring in its repetitive detail.
So it was with some trepidation that I requested a review copy of Emma Bull's recently-released Territory, especially when I learned that the action takes place in Tombstone, Arizona just prior to the infamous Shootout at the OK Corral. But after some consideration and looking into Emma Bull's background, I requested and received a copy. I am very glad that I overcame my initial reluctance to read anything related at all to the Old West.
Emma Bull has earned a reputation in spec fic circles for her writing, especially for War for the Oaks and the novel she co-wrote with Steven Brust, Freedom & Necessity. In Territory, she does something that is incredibly ballsy: she reinterprets the entire setting of Tombstone to make room for some of the historical people that would have made that town run. Women of all sorts, the Chinese - these often "invisible" or stereotyped peoples in traditional Westerns now take on a much larger role in her tale set in the Old West of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clantons. Oh, and there is magic present, making for a list of ingredients that can either lead to a very satisfying read or a horrid mess of a novel.
Thankfully, Bull manages to pull this off with one of the better-written tales that I've read in recent months. Her mixture of the historical (Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday) with the imagined (Jesse Fox, Mildred Benjamin, Chow Lung, Chu) and the barely-chronicled (the Earp women, China Mary) is one of those rare examples of how well-known historical figures can be given fictional roles, be fleshed out from the myths that surround them, and yet still feel "real" and not stilted in manner or action compared to the fictional characters. This is not an easy thing to do, especially since we have our own preconceptions about the events (and their meanings) that occurred in the Old West. That Emma Bull was able to create a story that in turns surprised and delighted me was a remarkable achievement.
Without revealing too much of the storyline, Territory revolves around power relations. From how women and the Chinese were treated (and how they in turn subverted societal expectations of the time) to how there was magic (of a Chinese sort - think feng shui and ley lines), there are all sorts of struggles among the people of Tombstone to understand, grasp, and control those various forms of power that ran through the town like the silver lodes nearby. The dispossessed and the newly-reinvented, such as Jesse and Mildred, find themselves struggling to comprehend what is happening. But by the end of this novel (there will be a second released in the next year or so that will cover the actual Shootout), one is left feeling that whatever one had conceived the Old West as being before, that those preconceptions had been tossed out the window.
However, this novel is not without its flaws. For those who prefer fast-moving action-oriented plots, Territory moves at a more deliberate pace. Things happen, mysteries appear and are later revealed in part, but it is more within internal character conflicts and interactions than due to external plot events. But for those of you who enjoy character-driven tales and who want to read a tale that subverts traditional views of the mythic Old West, Territory is an excellent candidate for that sort of read.
Summary: Territory is the first of a rumored two-part story told in third-person PoV that introduces elements of Chinese magic and gender relations to the semi-mythical events of 1881-1882 Tombstone, Arizona. Well-written, with a focus on character dynamics than on external plot events, Territory ought to appeal to those who prefer reimagined takes on the Western genre.
Release Date: July 3, 2007 (US), Hardcover
Publisher: Tor (318 pages)