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Monday, October 26, 2015


Author:  Laura Anne Gilman 
Plot Type: Adult (not YA) Alternate History Fantasy of the American West 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  MIRA
          Silver on the Road (10/2015)
          The Cold Eye (1/2017)

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 1/21/2017 to include a review of The Cold Eye, the second novel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an Introduction, an overview of the World-Building, and a review of the first novel.

                         NOVEL 2: The Cold Eye                         
     In the sequel to Silver on the Road, Isobel is riding circuit through the Territory as the Devil's Left Hand. But when she responds to a natural disaster, she learns the limits of her power and the growing danger of something mysterious that is threatening not just her life, but the whole Territory.

     Isobel is the left hand of the old man of the Territory, the Boss—better known as the Devil. Along with her mentor, Gabriel, she is traveling circuit through Flood to represent the power of the Devil and uphold the agreement he made with the people to protect and aid them. Here in the Territory, magic exists—sometimes wild and perilous.

     But there is a growing danger in the bones of the land that is killing livestock, threatening souls, and weakening the power of magic. Rumors reach Isobel via the spirits of the land and from Gabriel's friend back east, rumors of magic gone wild and undesired interest from the powers that be in Washington, D.C.

     In this installment of THE DEVIL'S WEST series, Isobel and Gabriel are in over their heads as they find what’s happening and try to stop the people behind it before it unravels the Territory.

     As the story opens, Isobel is awakened by a whisper, presumably from the spirit of the Territory, telling her to wake up and take care of a major problem in a distant valley. Because Gabriel is still healing, Isobel is temporarily on her own, but she packs up and heads out away from the road following in the direction the whisper leads her, only to find a butchered herd of buffalo, a terrified group of settlers, and a landscape empty of all animal and insect life—not to mention the frequent earthquakes. Obviously, this situation will require Isobel's immediate attention.

     After Gabriel catches up with Isobel, they soon discover that magicians are the source of the problem. This sets up a dilemma for Isobel because now her involvement raises a major jurisdictional question. "The Agreement gave the devil dominion over those who came into the Territory but not those who were of the Territory—the tribes, and those born of the bones themselves, the creatures of spirit and medicine. And not the magicians, who came from the outside but gave themselves over to the wind. But what of the Territory itself? She could feel it spreading out under her hand, though they were far off the Road...Too large, too strong for even the devil to comprehend." 

     The first half of the book moves at a slow pace, almost as slow as Isobel's plodding mule, and the story line dips much more deeply into the woo-woo than the first book did. This plot involves an angry ancient spirit, several teleporting spirit animals (owl, snake, wapiti (aka elk), and Reaper), and spirits of dead magicians. Each one has a position in the mythology that comes with a particular set of characteristics. Generally, after a mystical scene in which Isobel presses her hand into the earth and goes into a trance, she will then explain what happened by summarizing it for poor Gabriel, who is forced to stand by outside Isobel's salted wards. His job is to watch what happens, intervene if he thinks Isobel is in dire danger, watch out for human and nonhuman enemies, and protect the animals and supplies. I understand that Gilman is diving deeper into the magic in this novel, but the events that occurred during the trance scenes were not always clear to me so I grew to depend on Isobel's after-trance discussions with Gabriel.

     Throughout this novel, Isobel struggles with the fact that the Boss has never given her any instruction on how to use her personal magic and how it interacts with the magic that engulfs the Territory. She frequently grouses (to herself and to Gabriel) that things would be so much easier for everyone involved if the devil had just given her more information before sending her out into a world in which she is a novice who is forced to rely purely on instinct when she uses her powers to solve Territorial problems. "'Would it be so much,' she said, as much to the world around her as the mule accompanying her, 'for things to be explained rather than feeling as though the world's watching me try to figure it out? '" By the end of the book, Isobel realizes that she is more than just the devil's left handthat the Territory itself has given her some major power.

     Back at the beginning of the book, the catalyst that set the magicians on their violent, deadly path was the U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson, who realizes that America needs to spread out across the Mudwater (aka Mississippi River) into the devil's Territory. This is what causes the problems that Isobel deals with in this novel, and it will continue to be the devil's (and Isobel's) biggest problem in the future. Jefferson and his spies and interlopers represent the greedy, violent, and genocidal aspects of Manifest Destiny.

     Although this novel sometimes lost me in its deep, woo-woo depths, I still enjoyed the book, particularly the two main characters and their complicated relationship. I look forward to watching the struggle between the devil and Thomas Jefferson, with Isobel right in the center of the fight. This fresh and inventive approach to fantasy is a welcome respite from the unending stream of look-alike urban fantasy series with vampire/werewolf/demon plots starring brawny, leather-clad alpha male heroes and their gorgeous, sarcastic, angst-filled heroines. To read an excerpt from this novel on its page, click HERE and then click on the cover art.

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Cold Eye is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are entirely my own.  

Santa Fe Trail wagon-wheel
ruts near Dodge City, KS
     Many years ago, I pulled off of Highway 50 just west of Dodge City, Kansas, to take a look at the still-visible wagon-wheel ruts left by pioneers who traveled along the Santa Fe Trail well over a century ago. I was all alone, not another car in sight—just me and the roaring, deafening wind and the wildly waving prairie grass that stretched as far as the eye could see—nothing else. It was a mystical experience as I contemplated the courage it must have taken for those men and women to keep traveling west, day after day, on their open-ended journey, not knowing what they would find at the end. I revisited my memory of that day as I read Gilman’s descriptions of the Great Plains in the first novel in her new series, THE DEVIL'S WEST. Gilman’s descriptions also reminded me of John Ford's classic wide-screen westerns with their gorgeous Cinemascope scenes of those wide-open spaces. 

     In this series, set in 1801, Gilman has created a legendary West that actually feels familiar. This world includes many of the traditional people and places: marshals, trappers, farmers, miners, saloon girls, gamblers, Native Americans, Spanish friars, tiny towns, isolated farms, grassy plains, and barren mountains. Gilman takes all of these and mixes in superstitions, religious fervor, Native American legends, supernatural beasts, magical spells, and the devil himself. It's a winning combination. If you’re wondering why I didn’t mention cowboys and cattle drives, remember that this story takes place very early in the development of this country, at a time when the land west of the Mississippi was truly a wild and isolated place.

     In an online interview, Gilman describes her series like this: “a fantasy of...North America. Not the quest of empires, or the clash of armies, but the movement of people, and the ever-shifting thing we call a frontier, where one person’s home becomes another person’s hope—and conflict. About dividers and demarcations—and the human urge, and need, to cross over them. And a Western…invoking and involving the tropes of the restless frontier, and twisting it…”

The dark brown section is the Territory.
     The action in the first book is set in the Devil’s West—the Territory—which, according to Gilman (in another online interview), "can be reasonably overlaid on the Louisiana Purchase, which was about 828,000 square miles [located] west of the Mississippi, stretching to the Rocky Mountains, and including the area that would eventually become Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming." (In the hardcover edition, Gilman includes a two-page map showing the land distribution.) East of the Mudwater (aka the Mississippi River), is the United States (with Thomas Jefferson as president), which views the Territory “as a wilderness to be claimed and tamed.” To the South and West is Nueva España (New Spain). The Spanish “considered the Territory unclean, dangerous, and everyone who lived there lost souls, to be saved or burned.” To the North are the Northern Wilds, peopled mostly by Natives, with some British presence. The Territory is the only part of this world in which magic of all sorts exists. Outsiders regard the lands and residents of the Territory with a mix of curiosity, fear, distrust, and—sometimes—hatred.

     At the center of the drama is the boss—the devil—who is the ultimate ruler of the Territory. He holds court in the little town of Flood (in modern-day Kansas), using his saloon as his headquarters. There, he plays cards for souls. Day in and day out, people come to the saloon to sign contracts and strike Bargains with the boss, changing their lives forever. Hundreds of years ago, even before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the devil made a settlement with the natives and then with all newcomers to the Territory: “Take only what you need, use only what you must, do not tread on another’s shadow, do not give offense”—kind of like the Golden Rule.

     This devil is not a red-scaled, forked-tailed monster. He is an ordinary man. Well…maybe not so ordinary. His facial features and hair color change constantly, but his keen, golden brown eyes always remain the same. (The ever-changing hair was one of those "wait-just-a-minute” details that had me paging back to affirm that the boss’s hair started out dark, then became red, then blond.) Gilman uses this subtle, but effective, method for establishing all of the world-building elements—slipping details into the narrative and trusting her readers to synthesize them into a unified mythology.

     The series heroine is Isobel (Izzy) Távora Lacoyo, one of the boss’s indentured servants. Isobel came to the boss as a one-year-old child through a Bargain with her parents, whose homestead was burned out when they trespassed on Native lands. In return for safe passage back to Nueva España, they sold Isobel to the boss for a 15-year indenture. Since then, Isobel has spent her entire life in the saloon, the only home she has ever known. “Izzy had never been sick, never gone hungry, never been threatened by real danger…She was safe here.” In the first chapter of Silver on the Road, Isobel turns sixteen, which means the end of her indenture. But Isobel isn’t sure what comes next. As she ponders her future, she remembers the words of Ree, the cook: “When you deal with the devil, first know what you want, and what you can pay.” But what does she want? And how can she pay anything when she has no money? When she asks the boss what she should do, he leaves it up to her: “Your cards, your call.”

     After much thought, Isobel tells the boss that she wants to keep working for him, that she wants to be as important to him as Marie, the woman who is his Right Hand, but the boss has a different proposition. He explains, “We each have two hands, of equal strength and dexterity. Each with things it does well, better than the other.” He tells Isobel that Marie will be his Right Hand for years to come, managing his daily affairs in Flood, but he offers Isobel the position of Left Hand, his representative out in the Territory, “the quick knife in the darkness, the cold eye and the final word.” In the first book, Isobel learns just what this means.

     To accompany Isobel and serve as her mentor, the boss selects Gabriel Kasun, a lawyer who has forsaken his profession to become a Rider of the road. When Gabriel fled the Territory for the cities of the East, he had been “desperate to be away from this land that whispered in his veins, laced around his own bones…But he had not been able to stay away, the distance tearing at him every breath he took. Two Voices, the Hochunk named him, but Two Hearts might be better suited, or Two Spirits, to yearn for a place and hate it so.” Gabriel is an honorable man and a good teacher, but he has some dark secrets. In the first book, Gilman gives the reader only a partial explanation of the Bargain Gabriel makes with the devil.

    The road is just as important as the human and magical characters because it has its own, almost sentient, magic. As Isobel and Gabriel travel across the Plains to the mountains, he teaches her the tricks of on-the-road travel, and she learns to reach inside herself for magic that she didn't realize was there. This is a coming of age story (but NOT a YA story) that follows Isobel from her sheltered life in Flood to her eventual realization and acceptance of her Left Hand powers on the Road.

     Prior to writing Silver on the Road, Gilman wrote two short stories set in this world: “Crossroads” and “The Devil’s Jack.” Click HERE to read "Crossroads." You can find “The Devil’s Jack” in the anthology entitled Dead Man’s Hand (2014).

                              NOVEL 1: Silver on the Road                              
     A heroic fantasy by an award-winning author about a young woman who is trained in the art of the sinister hand of magic, but at what price? 

    East of the Mississippi, in the civilized world, dime store novels and gossips claim that the territory to the west is home to monsters and magic, wild Indians and disreputable whites. They claim that in order to survive, any who live there must make a deal with the Devil. Some of this is true. 

     Isobel is a child of the Territory. She grew up in a saloon, trained to serve drinks and fold laundry, to observe the players at the card tables and report back to her boss on what she saw. But when she comes of age, she is given a choice…. 

     “The right hand gathers and gives, visible to all. But the left hand, Isobel, the manu sinistra? It moves in shadows, unseen, unheard…. Until I deem it time for it to be seen and heard. And when it moves, its work cannot be undone. It is the strength of the Territory, the quick knife in the darkness, the cold eye and the final word.” 

     She looked up, away from his hands, and was caught by a gaze the burnt gold of the morning sun. 

     “I have been lacking a left hand for too long, now. Are you strong enough for that, Isobel nee Távora Lacoyo?”

     Isobel chooses power. Chooses risk. Chooses to throw her cards in with the Devil, Master of the Territory. But the costs of that power are greater than she ever imagined; the things she must do, the person she must become. And she needs to learn her new role quickly: pressures from both outside the Territory and within are growing, and the Devil’s Hand has work to do.

     In the early pages, Isobel ends her fifteen-year indenture to the boss—the devil—and makes a Bargain to become his Left Hand. The next morning, Isobel finds herself on horseback, riding away from Flood and the saloon she has called home all her life. Leading the way is Gabriel, a man she met only the night before. His job is to mentor her, to teach her enough that she can eventually travel the road alone. Among the things Gabriel teaches Isobel are the three rules of the road: 1. “Don’t pick up more than you can carry.”; 2. “Eat when you can, especially if someone else is cooking”; 3. “If you can avoid lying, you should.” Gabriel has constant misgivings about his promise to teach Isobel about the road, to turn “this girl-child into a rider…to harden [her] against the dust and sun, the bad food and hard beds, to be harder than the folk she’d find…to become whatever it was the devil intended her to be….This was far too much to expect of a child, even if Isobel thought it was what she wanted…He should have known a devil’s Bargain would be a damned uncomfortable thing.” In this book, the relationship between Isobel and Gabriel is strictly teacher/student, with no hint of romance between them. Gilman has stated in interviews that the two will eventually become friends and partners, but never lovers, although each will probably develop a physical relationship with someone we have yet to meet.

     The first reference to the titular silver comes at the beginning of part 2, when Isobel and Gabriel approach a crossroad. Crossroads are always dangerous because they are magical. To determine whether this crossroad is safe to pass through, Gabriel tosses in a silver coin. If it tarnishes, the crossroad is not safe. “Silver for cleansing. Silver for protection.” Fortunately, this first crossroad is safe. Later in the book, we learn that there are two kinds of silver: silver ore, which is commonly mined, and dangerous living silver, which runs in veins deep down in the earth—veins that miners try to avoid. “Silver ore was malleable, usable. Living silver resisted, often with terrible results.” Eventually, Isobel realizes, “I’m like silver…The boss tosses me in and I see if it’s safe. And if it’s not…”

     Days into their journey (across present-day Kansas and Colorado), Isobel and Gabriel make a stop at a farmstead, where they find all of the family members dead. Then, they find an entire town empty of all of its inhabitants. Meanwhile, some semi-friendly Natives and talking rattlesnakes stop by for a visit, all of whom give them ambiguous warnings of magical troubles ahead. Midway though the book, they meet a magician who attaches himself to them for the rest of their travels. In this world, magicians are to be feared ("If you ever see a magician, run. Do not pause, do not speak, by all that you value, do not catch their attention, just run.") Eventually, evil magic pervades their journey, along with political and religious elements that complicate their travels and put their lives in danger.

     As the days and weeks pass, Isobel gradually learns that she has a deep magical connection with the boss—the devil—but she yearns to have some powers that are her own. She also wishes that the boss had warned her of the troubles she would encounter on this trip. At one point, she complains, metaphorically, about having to deal with unexpected and increasingly dangerous situations: “Some folk might be fine being thrown into the creek; she preferred to know how swift the current was first. And now, this was a river, not a creek, and the water was well over her head.” As the dark magic becomes stronger, Isobel reviews the situation: something dark and hungry is cracking the bones of the earth—tipping the world out of balance—and it is her job as the devil’s Left Hand to root out that darkness and stop its spread. (No pressure, Isobel!) The manner in which she resolves this massive conflict is unpredictable until she does it, and then you say to yourself, “Of course,” because all of what went before leads directly to this climactic moment. Masterful story-telling in action!

     Gilman seamlessly slips the world-building into the narrative—not in big chunks, but in brief scenes that seem utterly natural. For example, we first get a hint about the magic of the Territory when Isobel goes for a walk on the outskirts of Flood and approaches the border, where she feels “the ground rumble faintly through the soles of her boots, part warning, part welcome…The town knew her, had known her since she was knee-high.” In another example, Marie looks at the boss’s map of the Territory, “the lines moved as she watched. Small shifts, quivers, trembles. Changes. A patch of red shaded to pink; a shadow of blue melted to yellow…They called it the Devil’s West, but they didn’t know the truth of it.” When Gabriel selects a place for their first overnight camp, we learn that he has water-finding abilities and that he carries a coalstone that can make fire. We first learn of the existence of magical creatures when the couple encounters four bounty hunters in search of an escaped fetch—the incorporeal form of a living body. Later, Gabriel tells Isobel that he once mentored a chimera. The magic of the Territory simmers in the background throughout the book, sometimes boiling over with a sinister hiss to affect the lives of the human inhabitants, generally to their detriment.

     The only place in which Gilman’s subtlety stumped me was in a single scene (pp. 237-239) in which she uses the pronoun “them” instead of “him” when referring to a Native seer named Calls Thunder. Here’s an example: “She didn’t know who Calls Thunder was, but the way Bear Who Runs didn’t look at their other companion, she thought it might be them. Why didn’t they let him speak?” And again a few paragraphs later: “She looked up into Calls Thunder’s eyes…she couldn’t help but reach up and touch…that warm flesh. They lifted their own hand and covered hers with gentle fingers. They understood what she felt.” I’d love to know what others think about this scene. Is Calling Thunder “them” because he is a dream-talker—a man with two identities, or natures? Or is something else going on? What am I missing?

     Gilman tells the story in a moderate, steady pace that mimics the leisurely manner in which Isobel and Gabriel travel along the road. Writing in the third-person voice from the alternating perspectives of Isobel and Gabriel, Gilman divides the book into six sections: 
     "Flood": world-building details and character introductions 
     "The Road": Isobel's physical and mental adjustments during her first weeks of riding horseback across the plains 
     "Dust and Bones": the manifestation of some magic-related problems, including a deserted town, a dark cloud, and a mad magician
     "Crossroads": a battle with a magical monster and a confrontation with some human religious fanatics
     "The Rising Wind": the build-up to and culmination of the climactic showdown scene 
     "Silver on the Road": a brief epilogue

     Gilman has an exquisite way with words, and I kept marking passages that I didn’t want to forget—like these:

     As Isobel and Gabriel leave Flood, the road is “wide-open…cleared of rocks and smooth of holes, exactly the way you’d expect the road to perdition to look.” (This is my favorite sentence in the entire book.)

      Getting a feel for the road through the plains: “The road…was…wide enough for two wagons to pass without one of them going in the ditch, pocked with hoofmarks and wheel ruts…just a long ribbon unrolling in front of them, occasionally disappearing up, over and down a hillock as they rode. The land…was flat, rolling away from the riverbanks; the soil there was good for farming, soft and rich, but past that it was grassland. Sere and low in the winter, dull enough to drive you to tears if you looked at it too long, but now with spring well along, the grassheads were speckled with tiny bursts of color where flowers reached toward the sun, yellow and blue against the endless shades of green.”

     The spooky factor: “The nape of her neck itched, and something pricked the palm of her left hand, sharply enough that her fingers flexed…She looked around even as her right hand went to the knife at her side...Nothing was visible on the road…The feeling intensified, thrumming through her, and then...disappeared…’I felt something,’ she said…Not the way she’d felt the road under her feet; more like how she’d come to know something was watching her, a sense of unease that had no obvious source…She waited, calmer now, but still feeling the sweat on her skin and the slight pinch of her boots, the smell of horse and leather and her own skin, and the sensation, still lingering, that something had been watching.”

     The sinister, crazed magician, Farron Easterly: “All in all…he was as unremarkable as the rocks on either side of the road, and colored much the same. Then he turned to face them, and Izzy took back all her previous thoughts. His skin was rough like a man who’d spent his life in the wind and sun, his nose a sharp beak, his forehead a high dome, and the eyes that studied them were as dark and deep as the earth itself. The smile that he flashed them, though, was that of a predator, a coyote upright on two legs.”

     RT Book Reviews has awarded this book 4.5 stars, with the following review: Silver on the Road takes an underused setting for fantasy—the American West—and uses it to explore coming of age, the limits of power and responsibility, and the importance of mingling compassion and justice. It’s fresh and original and the language is both stark and lovely. The descriptions of the natural landscape of the West fit beautifully with descriptions of talking animals, travelling magicians and terrifying supernatural forces.” I couldn’t have said it better. Gilman twists our view of the Old West just enough to add freshness and a hint of modernity, but maintains the traditional rhythms of life, speech, and morality. This book is a joy to read.

     In an on-line interview, Gilman says that she is writing, about the choices you make when you don’t have enough information, and the second chances you get to remake those choices. Dancing on quicksand, hoping they don’t drown.” That is a perfect description of Isobel's journey in this book. The three main characters—Isobel, Gabriel, and Farron—are a delight, all fully developed, but all with secrets still left to uncover. Gilman has much to mine in future books, all of which I am looking forward to reading. This is a terrific start to a gritty, thought-provoking, imaginative new series. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Silver on the Road.

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