Territory was my first Emma Bull novel. Despite all of the raves I’d heard about Bull’s work, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical of the premise when I picked up Territory. It’s a fantasy novel set in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. Yes, that Tombstone. The Wyatt Earp legend had never really captured my imagination, and I wasn’t sure I’d find it any more interesting if Wyatt Earp used magic to defeat the no-good lawless gunmen at the OK Corral. I shouldn’t have worried. Bull’s retelling deliberately twists the mythology of the Tombstone story and adds new and memorable characters to the Tombstone world. The result is a unique and memorable fantasy novel unlike anything I’ve ever read.
The book opens with the arrival of a drifter named Jesse Fox, who has come to Tombstone to speak with an old friend, Chow Lung. The day Jesse arrives, however, Tombstone is thrown into chaos by a stagecoach robbery. Over at the local newspaper, the Daily Nugget, widowed typesetter Mildred Benjamin finds herself re-setting the entire paper to accommodate the story of the holdup. Almost everyone in town agrees that Sheriff Virgil Earp’s brothers, Morgan and Wyatt, seem to be involved in the robbery — but on which side? Gradually, both Lung and Jesse grow to suspect that there is a wizard at work in Tombstone. One who definitely does not have the town’s best interests at heart.
My favorite part of the book was the relationship that develops between Mildred and Jesse. The chemistry between the two creates sparks that practically fly off the page, but both have good reasons for approaching romance cautiously. The resulting sort-of-courtship is warm and emotionally genuine.
I only had one reservation about the novel: was incorporating Wyatt Earp into the novel the right choice? In some ways, I wonder if Territory might have been better served by fictional characters instead of borrowing the names and backgrounds of real historical figures, especially ones with so much folk-mythology baggage. Sometimes it seems like Territory is really two novels — one about Mildred and Jesse, the other a magically-tinged retelling of the Tombstone legend — and it feels a bit jarring when they cross paths. I liked the relationship that develops between Mildred and the Earp wives early in the book, but Bull doesn’t quite succeed in making Earp himself a part of Mildred and Jesse’s world until Territory’s final chapters. Those final chapters still have me on pins and needles waiting for the as-yet-unfinished sequel.
Rating: Buy It