Territory, Emma Bull

Cover Image for Territory, by Emma BullSoundtrack for this post: Silver Stallion, The Highwaymen

I can trace my love of Emma Bull back to The Other Change of Hobbit, yet another Bay Area bookselling institution that hasn’t survived the age of effortless online sales1Everyone should go to Boarderlands and buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.. I’d never, ever have caught on to the awesomeness of Emma Bull if someone hadn’t hand-sold me War for the Oaks.2n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time. I worry about what I might be missing now that a disturbing percentage of my new book recommends come from Twitter.

I found my copy of Emma Bull’s Territory in the used Sci-Fi section at Green Apple in or around 2013, and for whatever reason, just didn’t get to it. I had it on the shelf, I tried to bully other people into reading it on multiple occasions, I even packed it on vacation. It just wasn’t the moment, I guess. Spiritually I wasn’t ready.

Set in an ever-so-slightly-fantastic version of the Arizona Territory, Territory deals with the conflicts and politics that divided the iconic Wild West community of Tombstone during the summer of 1881, and which would eventually lead to the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.3Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.” Bull’s Tombstone is a slippery blend of history, fiction, and fantasy. Fictional characters mix with real historical figures,4The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance. and a complex magical power struggle underlies real legal and physical battles.

The three pronged narrative is presented through the eyes of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp’s hard living dentist-cum-professional-gambler right hand man, “so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift” (59), Jessie Fox, an iterate horse trainer with East Coast manners and supernatural talents he can’t quite face, and Mildred Benjamin, a young widow making her living as a typesetter by day while writing sensational fiction at night. After the Benson stage robbery, all three find themselves, in different ways, embroiled in the escalating conflict between the ranchers and townspeople, and facing a mysterious and powerful magic.

The Genre Mash is always a crowd pleaser, instantly refreshing favorite tropes by placing them in a new context, and the Sci-Fi/Old West smashup is arguably the most fail safe.5Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered. If, in the process, the author manages to inject social morays that are a bit more palatable to the modern mind, so much the better. In most retellings of this particular Wild West creation myth women are incidental6Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts. or explicitly problematic.7Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good. Territory, however, is overtly feminist. Mildred comes into her own as a writer over the course of the novel. Kate sees through Earp’s plots and manipulations, engineering Doc’s arrest not because she’s angry with him, but as a means of protecting him. Wyatt Earp’s public infidelities call his character into question. Both Doc and Jessie, in very different ways, seem to value strength and individuality in their women folk.

Totally enjoyable, engaging read, but ultimately not destined for my future estate sale. I’d put this one on Amazon, but unfortunately in the process of reading it I managed to completely destroy it, so I’m afraid its bound for the Goodwill, if they’ll take it. One down. Approximately 200 to go.

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References   [ + ]

1. Everyone should go to Boarderlands and buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.
2. n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time.
3. Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.”
4. The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance.
5. Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered.
6. Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts.
7. Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good.

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