From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Territory by Emma Bull, After the War by Tim Lebbon

Subterranean Press, 150 pages, $35

Tim Lebbon returns to his fantasy world of Noreela (the setting for his novels Dusk and Dawn as well as the soon-to-be-published Fallen and The Island) with the two novellas that make up After the War. Noreela is a world that once was vibrant with machines and magic but now has fallen apart after the Cataclysmic War. Magic is gone and most of the machines are in disrepair. It’s a world in which the main energy sources have disappeared, and new ways of living have to be formed.

In the first tale, Vale of Blood Roses, we watch as Jakk, a man trying to rebuild his life and family, must atone for the horrors he participated as a mercenary during the war. Jakk has hidden from his family the massacre he helped create, but when the machine-people that survived come for revenge, the choices left to him are grim. Jumping back and forth in time, Lebbon takes us through those horrors while also letting us experience how war never lets people forget their actions.

The second tale, The Bajuman, is a mystery with a noir flare that turns into a New Weird oddity yet pulls back to a satisfying mystery by the end. It is a difficult juggling act that Lebbon pulls off with seeming ease.

Rhyl Santon hires the Bajuman to find a stolen fodder — a creature, possibly a person, bred to be eaten. His search takes him into the depths of Noreela City where only the most dangerous survive.

That “possibly a person” fodder is the only fault in these novellas — and it’s only a small fault. In both tales, if you have not read any of the previous books, you may feel a bit confused at first (more so than is normal for jumping into a fantasy novel). Some things are simply never explained, yet I had the distinct sensation the information existed elsewhere and that I was expected to know these things.

Luckily, the stories hold together well, take some interesting risks, and ultimately, pay off. If you’ve read the previous Noreela novels, these will give you a fuller sense of the world and keep your appetite in check until the next full-length novel is published. If you’re new to Noreela, these stories will please you, give you a taste of what Lebbon’s writing is like, and perhaps send you to the bookstore searching for Dusk and Dawn. (ISBN: 978-1-5960-6139-2. February 2008.) —Stuart Jaffe

TERRITORY by Emma Bull
Tor, 318 pages, $24.95

Emma Bull is one of those writers about whom my main complaint is that they don’t write enough. Her last novel, Freedom and Necessity (with Stephen Brust) appeared fully a decade ago. So I was delighted to see Territory on bookstore shelves this summer.

This is a fantasy set in the Old West, indeed, in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, in the months leading up to the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Bull focuses on three characters. Mildred Benjamin is a young widow making an independent life for herself as a newspaperwoman and as a writer of early “pulp” Western stories. Jesse Fox is a horse trainer, previously from San Francisco, who has wandered into Tombstone on the way to Mexico — or so he thinks. And Doc Holliday — well, we know who Doc Holliday is: a dentist, a card player, a Southerner, and a friend of the controversial Wyatt Earp.

Through the eyes of these characters we learn the dicey political situation in Tombstone. Much of the trouble is centered on Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Wyatt wants to be Sheriff, but has no formal position. Virgil is City Marshal. And their no-account brother Morgan is on the other side, more or less, and as the novel opens he has just participated in an attempted stagecoach robbery that left two people dead. Doc Holliday manages to create an alibi for Morgan, but in the process becomes a suspect himself. Over the next few months tensions rise between the townspeople, the Earps, and the cowboys, some of them rustlers, who live outside of town — people like the McLaury brothers, John Ringo (supposedly an ancestor of the SF writer of that name), and the Clantons. And the truth about the stage robbery becomes fuzzy as the main suspects all meet violent deaths before they can be arrested.

All this is for the most part historical record. What makes this story a story is the personal experience of the main characters. Mildred is the most engaging, the best depicted. As a woman, she has a different view of the conflict, especially once she befriends the Earps’ wives. And her budding career as a reporter gives her a still different angle. Jesse Fox, meanwhile, has his own secret, one he is loath to admit to himself. He can do magic. His friend Chow Lung, a Chinese doctor, urges him to accept his abilities. And in so doing, he realizes that there are other magic users in Tombstone — including very likely both Wyatt Earp and at least one of Earp’s enemies. Finally, Doc Holliday is probably the least well realized main character — perhaps because he is historical. His viewpoint serves mostly as an inside look at Wyatt Earp’s “camp”.

At this level the book follows Jesse’s arrival, his investigation, with Chow Lung, of the murder of a Chinese prostitute, and his subsequent realization that the girl was a victim of the political eddies in Tombstone. Meanwhile Mildred moves from typesetter to reporter at the Nugget as she gets interested in the nasty doings of a mining company. At the same time she is romantically drawn to both Tom McLaury and Jesse Fox. And her knowledge of the situation of the Earp women puts her squarely in the anti-Earp camp. Meanwhile Doc Holliday is trying to escape Earp’s orbit, urged by his common law wife Kate. But Earp’s hold — magical, perhaps? — seems to prove too strong.

The book is quite a delightful read. Mildred and Jesse are engaging protagonists, if, as I mentioned, Doc Holliday is a bit thinner. The fantastical element is modest but well-integrated and well portrayed. I had just one major issue: as the end approached, I realized that the remaining pages were not possibly enough to contain the actual gunfight. And, indeed, the book rather suddenly stops — at a not unreasonable point, with certain crucial information just revealed, but not, it turns out, at the end of the story. Yes — once again we have a book that is only Part One of a series (of only two books, I believe) — with absolutely no indication of this fact in the book, or on the cover, or anywhere unless you poke around the author’s web page. I will certainly be happy to read the conclusion to this story — but it would have been nice to know going in that Territory is only the first half. (ISBN: 978-0-312-85735-6) —Rich Horton

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