Book: “Silver on the Road” by Laura Anne Gilman
Publishing Info: Saga Press, October 2015
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel makes the choice to work for the devil in his territory west of the Mississippi. But this is not the devil you know. This is a being who deals fairly with immense—but not unlimited—power, who offers opportunities to people who want to make a deal, and makes sure they always get what they deserve. But his land is a wild west that needs a human touch, and that’s where Izzy comes in. Inadvertently trained by him to see the clues in and manipulations of human desire, Izzy is raised to be his left hand and travel the circuitous road through the territory. As we all know, where there is magic there is power and chaos…and death.
Review: You know you read a lot of a specific genre when you begin to recognize cover art artists! So, while I would like to say that I first looked at this book based on its amazing premise, the truth is that the cover artist has also done covers for some of my other favorite fantasy reads, so those books just immediately leap out at me whenever I’m browsing through lists. But, books are not their covers and all of that, so the unique premise was ultimately what landed this one for me as worth checking out. And, while there were a few frustrations here and there, all told, I very much enjoyed this book as a refreshing change of pace for fantasy fiction.
Honestly, with so much of urban fantasy and historical fantasy starting to feel tired and weighed down by too many tropes, it’s shocking that the concept of alternative Western fantasy hasn’t struck home more fully. What an untapped setting and part of history! And this alternative American Wild West was really the major strength of the book.
In this version of history, the West (essentially anything that would have been gained in the Louisiana Purchase in true history) is literally wild, kept in check only by the mysterious and half-fabled Devil who rules the Territory. The true essence and character of the Devil is never fully explored, whether he is the actual Devil from a Biblical sense, or whether this is a name he has acquired from magic-fearing folk who don’t know what else to call him. At a certain point, I simply began associating him with the type of Devil character you hear/read about in folk tales (like the Devil in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”)
But this is a good example of the type of “go with it” mentality that is necessary for this book. There are many questions raised and very few answers given. This could be frustrating at times, particularly when I got to the end and realized some of them would be left unanswered completely. But with the world-building itself, it was easier to simply stop trying to over-analyze and simply enjoy immersing oneself in it instead.
Izzy, a young woman who has worked at a tavern alongside the Devil her whole life, is recruited by him to travel the Territory as his Left Hand. Here, too, there was not a lot of clarification. Izzy is simply set out into the world alongside Gabriel, a travel-worn companion who knows the hidden paths and pitfalls of the Territory and who has stuck his own mysterious bargain with the Devil (more unanswered questions!). What she can do, how she can do it, and even when she should do it are all unknowns to her and us.
I very much enjoyed these two characters and their expedition, however. This is a very slow burn novel, and much of the page time is spent with these two on the road, basically wandering from one place to another. Only towards the very end of the book do the small plot points that have been stumbled upon really begin to come together to form any type of unified conflict and arc. For those looking for a more tight story with a more natural progression of learned information, this book may be a struggle. I was able to attach myself strongly enough to the character development of Izzy and Gabriel that most of this was ok by me. I also, personally, very much enjoy hiking and discovering new parts of the world around bends in roads. So, for me, the meandering approach to storytelling that was largely just a roadtrip on a horse was appealing.
I very much enjoyed this book. However, for some it may read as slow and the unanswered questions could be frustrating. I had a fairly laid back approach to this, knowing there was a sequel that was just published, but even I found myself frustrated at times. Izzy’s powers are so undefined, even at the end, that while I know that progress was made in this book (a conflict was resolved and all), it still felt like Izzy herself had very far to go. And Gabriel’s past is still very much a large question mark. But I’m on board enough to want to read the next one where hopefully some of this will be answered!
Rating 8: What could be a slow, frustrating read, was saved by a truly unique setting in a fantastical, alternative American West.
“Silver on the Road” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best Fantastic American West” and “Dead Man’s Hand.”
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