All right, I’ve just decided this is going to be Old West season for me. Between Girl and Wake and Snow White, and now Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman, I’m just going to become a temporary expert on Old West Fantasy, or Weird West fiction, or whatever you want to call it. (Next up: Walk on Earth a Stranger, which is about gold–seems like a good progression from silver. Then Bands of Mourning, about lots of metals. Wow, this works well.) A girl’s got to have some hobbies, after all.
There’s a good deal of Americana in this book, that odd amalgam of superstitions, legends, and little magics that are partly Old World, partly New, and entirely un-showy. There’s something about (non-native) America that resists grandiose mythologies. It’d be a dissertation to figure out exactly why that is (or you could just read American Gods), but i think it’s the confluence of so many Christian cultures. Christianity, as a monotheistic and proselytizing religion, resists syncretism. You can’t say “oh, Coyote’s a bit like Hermes, isn’t he? And Hermes is also a bit like Thoth. We’ll call him Hermes Latrans here, and get a myth about Thoth and Anubis having a magic kid, and there will be a temple either way.” Crossroad magic and hexes and little magics might be plentiful, but there aren’t strong gods to make wizards or giants. There’s only holiness or sin, one God and one Devil.
Isobel Lacoyo Tavora works for the Devil.
Well, she works for the devil, little d. Whether he is Satan the Morningstar, first rebel against heaven and king of hell, is unclear. He does have a wicked bar, though. Or as close as you can get in alternate universe 1850, which would be a saloon. We meet Izzy on the eve of her sixteenth birthday and the end of her indenture to “the Boss,” when she will have to choose a new life for herself. As you might expect, she elects to stay on and work for the devil, who keeps the Territory from conquistadors, Americans, and any other greedy power you can imagine. He also makes many a deal, trading in secrets and wishes, the kinds that people don’t fully understand themselves, or don’t dare to tell themselves if they do.
Early on it can occasionally veer into the pedestrian, with Gilman describing campfires and skirts but not demons or magicians, all to give a sense of realism. I don’t begrudge her that, exactly, since Isobel takes both coffee and salt circles to be basic necessities. But Isobel–and we–are here to learn the ways of the Territory from Gabriel, and there’s no clear understanding of how that will be accomplished. They head out without a stated goal or destination, and without establishing Isobel’s course of study. She–and we–learn, but haphazardly, which is fine for absorbing lessons, but less fine for establishing the course of a narrative. I don’t just mean the action. I mean the character narratives. It’s initially very hard to even figure out what Isobel and Gabriel want.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous rules for writing was “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” At sixteen, it’s natural that Isobel might not know much about what she wants from life. But she knows enough to take to the road and serve the devil, and she wants to learn. It’s frustrating, then, to know neither the destination of her travels nor the the conflict that will eventually befall her. Gabriel, her guide, knows it. Keeping it a mystery from the readers creates some early frustrations, but those melt away as we get a better sense of the threat facing this pair of riders.
The threat is a storm both literal and metaphorical, a brew of dark clouds and magic that comes over the mountains and begins wreaking havoc with the Territory and its inhabitants. It’s malicious, but whether it has its own direction or is under foreign command is unclear. It’s also unclear what exactly it’s doing, or how. All Isobel and Gabriel know is that there are empty houses, and empty roads, and empty towns. The dead and the missing don’t even haunt them. There’s just emptiness, with the occasional crack of thunder. And always the sense of being watched. It was a wise choice to play on the eeriness of all that wide-open sky and endless open road: this book will make an agoraphobic of you before it’s done, and make you fear magic as much as you might enjoy it.
The magic system here isn’t Sandersonian, aka with prerequisites in engineering or linguistics. It’s more of the kind of magic I’d actually call magic–not a science with repeatable, testable results, but the bastard offspring of instinct, feeling, and ritual. Isobel picks it up with a combination of need and dreaming, which might seem convenient, but is most assuredly not. It ratchets up the tension tenfold to know that Isobel might not figure out even what to do, let alone how to do it.
Accomplishing that kind of magic without making it seem foolish requires some top-notch writing, and Gilman delivers. The prose is evocative without being purple and the dialogue is period-appropriate without being hokey. Hardest of all, Gilman makes me believe that there’s no romantic yearning on either Isobel or Gabriel’s part–and thank goodness. A well-written romance is fine, but a perfunctory one is hellish, and there’s nothing more perfunctory than “two people on a long, hard journey take solace in each other,” or, more ickily, “male teacher and female student find common ground.” Hooray for Gabriel and Isobel having better things to do, and hooray for the neglected platonic male-female bond.
Ultimately this book feels like one of my all-time favorite series, the Belgariad by David Eddings. Its real goal isn’t necessarily the Big Bad, but an introduction to the Territory and an exploration of all the things that go hither and thither across it. And its characters are friends and allies, not just romantic fodder. For the next volumes I believe there will be more of a sense of direction, so I anticipate liking book two even more than I liked Silver on the Road, which was already quite a lot.