Laura Anne Gilman has been a professional novelist since the mid-1990s, so it is indeed odd that I had not read any of her books until now. Her 2015 Silver on the Road is my first.
Sold as a toddler to the Devil, Isobel will soon turn sixteen. Her indenture will end and she will have to make some difficult choices. Should she leave Flood, the only town she has ever known, or should she, like so many others, make a bargain with the Boss?
She could have left. Isobel chose instead to become the Devil’s Left Hand.
Flood sits near the center of the Devil’s West, a vast territory sandwiched between a slender United States (barely older than Isobel) that lies to the east and a Spanish Protectorate to the west. In order to best serve her master, Isobel must learn more about the Devil’s West. To that end, the Devil sends Isobel out onto the road. She is accompanied by Gabriel Kasun, an experienced traveler. He is not a mentor; the lessons Isobel needs to learn are ones she will have to learn on her own.
The Devil’s West is a refuge for native tribes and for settlers canny enough to make their own deals with natives and the natives’ powerful ally, the Devil. It is also a refuge for supernatural entities fleeing from more civilized, sceptical parts. Some of these entities are neutral, some will bargain, and others are a scourge. They are the price that the humans in the Devil’s West pay for their comparative freedom.
Isobel’s wanderjahre will be a trying one. Ambitious men have called up something inchoate and inexplicable that harries the Devil’s people. Guns and magicians cannot stop it. Isobel is the Devil’s chosen weapon in this context and if she fails him? Well, there’s always someone else willing to make a deal with the Devil.
I complain about this every time I review a fantasy alternate history, so you know the drill. How can you have working magic and a wandering, interfering Devil and still have a history that resembles ours?
I knew that this book would make me grumpy. At the front of the book, there’s a map of early 19th century North America, which shows: Spanish Protectorate, the Devil’s West, blank unclaimed lands in the Pacific Northwest, and vast Northern Wilds that stretching from present-day British Columbia to present-day Maritime provinces. No trace of British North America. Now, I have learned to expect that all too many American authors are ignorant of Canada’s history, and sometimes of its very existence. It was a minor consolation to learn, as I read, that the mapmaker may not know about British North America„ but the folks in the Devil’s West do.
Given the history of weird westerns, where natives are replaced by fantasy creatures or simply erased entirely, I was worried that Gilman would similarly scrub out the indigenes. (Perhaps we are beginning to guess that I may not be the best choice to review this sort of book.) The First Nations are still there. Even though we do not learn much about them, it is clear that they are culturally heterogeneous. It’s all too easy to lump them all together as natives, but Gilman does not. So there’s that.
I have no idea why it’s the Spanish Protectorate and not New Spain. We don’t learn much about the inner workings of the Protectorate. All we are told is that the Viceroy is ambitious to the point of personal perdition and the priests are pesky and prickly — but not entirely without virtue.
This book’s Devil isn’t a grand figure of malice embodied, a trickster whose bargains always turn out badly for those foolish enough to deal with him. In fact, I’m not at all sure that he is the Devil. He just might be a supernatural entity of great power who has adopted the name and style of devil.
The Devil is not opposed by a One True Religion. In this world, there is no one Truth, just different ways of looking at the same facts. Still, it must be admitted that this Devil may be loyal to his subjects, but he is also dangerous to serve. He won’t try to trick you, but he may get you killed.
Sixteen-year-old Isobel has probably chosen a short but interesting life. This may not be the most sensible choice … but then, sixteen-year-olds are not known for sensible choices.
Weird Western is not a genre I like but if more of the books in it were like Silver in the Road, I might.
Silver on the Road is available from Saga Press, which is an imprint I seem to be reviewing frequently these days.