Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've had this on my Kindle for a while, and just recently felt in the mood for it. It's hard to categorise, which I like; you could call it a "weird Western," but that would give almost completely the wrong impression. It's, among other things, an alternate history, in which a powerful supernatural being, known as "the devil" to people in the neighbouring countries, presides over a land called the Territory that sits between the Mississippi River - border of the United States - and the Spanish lands beyond the Rocky Mountains. Within these borders, various forms of magic, mostly small, and supernatural beings exist. The date appears to be somewhere around 1800.
The book is a coming-of-age story, in which a sixteen-year-old girl, raised in the saloon which is the devil's headquarters, makes an agreement with him to become his Left Hand. This involves travelling the Territory, so she is handed over to a mentor, an experienced rider who is to teach her what she needs to know to travel the roads safely. Together, they discover and must deal with an invading bit of magic which has become dangerous to the Territory and its inhabitants.
The pace is languid, epic-fantasy style, which is probably my main criticism of the book. I prefer a less leisurely narrative, in which the author doesn't take an entire paragraph to say that the protagonist got some coffee and an apple. The chapters (or "parts") are very long, which means that I often stopped reading in the middle of one, sometimes in the middle of a scene in which not much was happening. There will be readers who do this and never come back again.
I kept coming back largely because of the evocative world. One measure, for me, of a book is how many ideas it gives me for my own stories, and this one gave me several - not things I want to directly steal, but new thoughts that were triggered off by an oblique or passing reference. I had the same experience reading Max Gladstone.
The plot itself is a fairly standard coming-of-age fantasy, albeit interestingly genderflipped, and between that and the languid pace, plus a perhaps gratuitous level of hostility to Christianity, it didn't quite make it to five stars for me. It's a strong four, though. I almost gave it my "well-edited" tag, but I spotted 11 minor typos (ranging from a missing period, through common mistypings such as "that" for "than," to word substitutions like "pavement" for "payment," "house" for "hour" and "suspicious" for "suspicions"). They were typos, though, slips of the fingers rather than indications that the author didn't know how to punctuate or what words mean. The prose is highly competent, smooth and evocative, and conveys a good story in a fascinating world.
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