Silver on the Road is a fantasy set in an alternate version of the early western expansion, and is also the very first Laura Anne Gilman novel to completely work for me. I've read two others. The first, her urban fantasy, I absolutely hated and the second, the magical wine Renaissance fantasy, wasn't quite really my cup of tea either, though I didn't hate it. However, I feel like Gilman's slow, meandering, detailed style fits perfectly with the western theme.
The novel starts on Izzie's 16th birthday, the last day of her indenture to the being identified as the Devil. He, called the Devil because of his propensity for bargains among other reasons, asks Izzie what exactly she wants to do now that she is no longer required to work off the debt of her parents. She asks to work for him and so becomes his Left Hand. What exactly that means is something that she learns alongside the reader as the book progresses. She takes to the Road with Gabriel, an experienced traveler, on an apprenticeship of sorts as she sorts out exactly what it means to be the Left Hand of the Devil. Gabriel meanwhile has made his own deal and has his own reasons for taking her along with him. There is a danger coming into the Devil's territory and Isobel must deal with it as the Devil's Left Hand whether she is prepared to do so or not. This is a story that takes early American Folklore combines it with a coming of age story, adds a journey tale, and it all blends into something fresh and lovely.
Honestly, this is less a western novel then it is a frontiersman novel. I know the differences between the two are minuscule, and only a few decades separate them out. But this west is not the west of Billie the Kid, Wild Bill, or Jesse James. This is the west, an alternate version of course, of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Lewis and Clark. In fact, the Devil's Territory is the Louisiana Purchase, right down to the major 'cities' being located in the same spots. Again, I feel like I'm splitting hairs, but I was expecting one and was disconcerted when I realized it was the other.
I do think it's an important distinction to make though. I love alternate realities, and one of the things I get picky about with them is where history changes. How does the magic in this world change the things that happened in our history to make it the history of this novel? I think, if I'm placing the novel correctly, it's set around 1800. The American Revolution had just happened and over in the States Thomas Jefferson is president. Of course, being an alternate version of the US, some things are different. It's most likely that France never occupied this part of the US (which makes me wonder what happened to The French and Indian War, especially as that was an important factor in the US Revolution). Instead, this territory has been claimed by an powerful being, called the Devil by the Catholic Spanish explorers who first encountered him.
All the elements of the early frontier are there, the Spanish, the French, the Brits, the Natives, the new United States, but the relationships are slightly different because this stretch of land isn't claimed by any of them. Even the Native Americans have ceded control of the land to The Devil for reasons known only to them. I'm honestly unsure how I feel about that particular development. I think the novel is fairly respectful in it's treatment of the various Tribes, when they appear, but well... you've got one man claiming control or protecting the whole of it which means he made a deal with ALL of the plains tribes, and they all agreed that he would be the best being to protect/rule/control the area.
I found it extremely interesting that magic seems to be limited only to this small part of the US, between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. There are hints that magic is long buried in other parts of the world, but here and only here does it come to the surface. Why? Is it civilization? Is it something else? It seems as though something the Devil does protects the magic, as he stopped the Spanish invaders from claiming any part of this territory when the first conquistadors started exploring.
But enough history geeking. I enjoyed the slow meandering pace of this novel, like I said I think Gilman finally found a story that works with her style. She has this tendency to give you every single detail. Izzie doesn't just put on her shoes in the morning, she shakes out both boots and removes any hiding spiders and then puts them on. These details make for slow reading, and when the story is as much about the journey as it is about anything else, it works. The novel is a coming of age story, so while we experience life on the Road with Izzie, we're watching her grow into her power even as a threat looms above the characters and the Territory.
I think there's a small pacing problem, though it's more likely connected to Gilman's writing style then to an actual issue. As I said, the journey is just as important as anything else in the novel and Gilman revels in the small details of the journey. But that style does make the threat less looming and so when we finally come to a confrontation at the end of the novel it felt rather anti-climatic as opposed to something that had been building. The confrontation was simply another step in Izzie's journey as opposed to the end of a plot arch. This makes the novel's end feel rather abrupt, though also fitting as it is just one step in Izzie's journey as the Left Hand of the Devil.
I liked the novel quite a bit. There were lots of little folklorish details that contributed to making the novel feel old and real. I am eagerly anticipating the next book.