Territory by Emma Bull, in the fantasy sub-genre now called Weird West, was published in 2007. I bought it immediately in hardcover because I loved previous books by Bull…but then it sat in the TBR because I wasn’t very interested in the town of Tombstone and the OK Corral, which it seemed the story was about. I am pleased to report that the book is not actually about the OK Corral. Various Earps are everywhere (Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, Jim, etc.) as well as subsidiary pov character Doc Holliday, but I confess I was much more interested in the original characters.
Warning: this post includes plot spoilers. If you do not like plot spoilers, and plan to read this book, click away.
The fantasy elements are slow to emerge. The story is more about the vividly portrayed mining town of Tombstone in 1880, a Stranger Who Comes to Town, and a lot of fascinating women, with swirling tensions surrounding the Earps in the background. The magical element is linked to the stranger, Jesse Fox, and his friend and mentor Chow Lung. The female point of view character, widow Mildred Benjamin, and the women she encounters (Kate Holliday, and several of the Mrs. Earps among them) are what caught my attention, however. I wanted a lot more about them. Jesse is a cipher at first; I didn’t find him interesting until he began bantering with mercurial Chow Lung, and was not pleased when, much later, Lung was killed, leaving Jesse a bit lopsided.
Mildred intrigued me from the start. She works as a typesetter at a local newspaper, where the editor, it’s clear to the reader if not to Mildred, thinks she should be a reporter. After selling a romantic adventure story to a magazine, Mildred researches and writes her first story for the paper; her experiences of receiving a response to her story, and having her first effort at journalism edited, were my favorite scenes in the novel. I also loved seeing her friendship with Mrs. Austerberg, wife of the local shopkeeper, and her growing relationships with other women in the town.
Jesse first denying and finally embracing his magical abilities were a reasonable arc, but I felt the fantasy element as a whole felt vaguely unfinished, possibly because the OK Corral battle, which I had assumed would be the climax of the book, did not happen. It looked to be on the horizon, but seemed an odd omission unless another book or books was planned to follow. I was left slightly unsatisfied overall, but glad that I’d finally gotten around to the book.