When you live in the West, you come to expect the big skies. You learn to navigate by the epic weight of mountains crowding the horizon. You know the snapping sharp transition between the close embrace of the woods and the openness of the high mountain clearing. Even in the cities, you live with the land close by — never being allowed to forget that you are in a wild place that will never be truly settled. In the East, nature is allowed to exist by man in controlled, manageable pockets, ever shrinking. In the West, nature allows you to exist. Or doesn't, according to its whims. And anyone who forgets that is a fool.
Of the three things I love most about Laura Anne Gilman's Devil's West series, her deep understanding of this sharp division of dominion on either side of the Mississippi is my second favorite. My first is petty (and we'll get to it shortly). And my third is the dirt under its nails.
First, the split. West and East. Wild and tame. Magic and commerce. In Gilman's universe, the government holds sway in the East. There is the rule of law. But in the West, there is the Devil — the boss, the old man — and his Agreement with the people who live in the Territory that they exist under his protection and by his rules. No formalized Christian devil, Gilman's is a card sharp in a neat suit, smelling of tobacco and whiskey, owner of a saloon in a town called Flood and vastly powerful in ways that are never entirely understood. And his representative in this world (his tool in those places he can not be personally) is a 16 year old girl called Isobel, the Devil's Left Hand.
In Gilman's most recent novel, The Cold Eye (second in the series, following Silver on the Road), this friction between wildness and civilization is the motor that drives the plot. It picks up shortly after the close of the last book, with Isobel alone on the trail and her mentor, an experienced, haunted man named Gabriel who has made his own deal with Old Scratch, recovering from wounds sustained battling monsters during Silver's conclusion. Only days have passed, but the young girl (who is still learning the limits of the remarkable powers granted her, and the intricacies of the debt she has taken on in becoming the Devil's Hand) almost immediately finds trouble once more.
She finds herself drawn to a clearing heaped with the carcasses of slaughtered buffalo, their bodies left to rot. Beyond it, a settlement of frightened families, a valley stripped clean of all living, breathing things — and an ancient, hungry, furious spirit bound by stone and the betrayal of Easterners who, looking West and seeing "a fruit they want nothing more than to bite into and consume," have come exploring, looking for magical power, shunning the Agreement that has kept the peace in the Territory for generations and barely even believing in the tales of the Devil and his bargains.
The petty thing that I love about Gilman's work is the way that she gets the little things right. She cuts no corners and offers no mercy to her characters. There are always horses that need brushing down and hobbling, firewood that must be gathered, weather that must be respected and not enough baths. When someone falls, they bleed. When they're hurt, they must recover. It's like the Oregon Trail of magical voodoo western novels in that plenty of people die of dysentery along the way and not everyone makes it through in one piece. Or even several.
Things go badly, as they must. The Devil's Territory kills the stupid, the foolhardy and the overly greedy in battalions. And while Gilman crafts a story here that, in many ways, is a small thing — less world-endingly vast than the events of Silver — it is, at the same time, important. The Cold Eye is a grimy little workaday story of Isobel and Gabriel's work out in the wild places; one that rolls around in the minutiae of this world's friction between magic and realism, serving as a frame around which Gilman can drape tales of talking elk and silent Native American warriors, Philadelphia lawyers, President Jefferson and Gabriel's past.
This is the dirt under its nails: Gilman's complete and absolute command of the world she has created. She knows it like her backyard. Every fold of the land and quirk of natural law, every pristine intention and ugly necessity. And on the page it feels less like make-believe and more like walking in the wilderness of half-forgotten American legends. With just a midnight whisper of violent truth.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.