Territory

Author: Emma Bull
Published: 2007

Mood: If you’re tired of the same basic stories about the Old West and Tombstone and you’re craving something female-driven that’s so totally different it makes you wonder why no one ever went there before. 

If you think you’ve read every possible take on Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, think again. Emma Bull’s Territory is a totally original story about Tombstone’s most famous residents.

Here’s the thing about taking creative liberties with real-life people and events from the Old West – if you’re going to change up the facts, you’d better have a REALLY good concept

Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday led fascinating lives. The only reason to turn parts of those lives into fiction, whether it’s a book or a movie script, should be to bring something fresh and exciting to a familiar story. We don’t need another f*cking Hickok! And other than Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, most movies I’ve seen about Wyatt and Doc were highly fictionalized versions for no good reason. 

In Territory, Wyatt Earp is a dark sorcerer using his powers to control everyone around him – bad guys, good guys, and even his closest friends. 

That is EXACTLY the kind of retelling that gives me life. 

photo of the book 'Territory' by Emma Bull

Territory begins with Doc Holliday playing poker with Ike and Billy Clanton, in the Oriental saloon. It’s 1881, sometime between when Marshal Fred White was killed by Curly Bill Brocius and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. 

The stage is quickly set for a series of intertwined and puzzling events: a mysterious stranger named Jesse Fox comes to town chasing after his stolen horse, and Doc gets a haunting feeling about him. Jesse runs into an old friend from San Francisco, Chow Lung, who insists that he summoned Jesse with magic. Mildred Benjamin, a typesetter at a Tombstone newspaper, learns of a stagecoach robbery and murder the previous night and has an extremely unsettling first impression of Jesse. 

A posse goes after the suspects, including Sheriff Behan, Bat Masterson, U.S. Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, Wyatt, and Doc. They ride up to a ranch, and Doc sees Wyatt acting oddly, touching the ground and suddenly knowing exactly where the men are hiding. Meanwhile, Chow Lung tells Jesse that he brought him to town because Jesse’s powers are needed to stop something evil – but Jesse doesn’t believe in magic. 

That doesn’t sound even one-tenth as exciting as this book, but that’s because if I went any further there would be massive spoilers. But if I didn’t at least hint at the characters and subplots, the rest of this review would make no f*cking sense. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

Territory’s rich story unfurls like waves of magic on the air. The narrative slips easily back and forth between Doc, Jesse, and Mildred. Doc’s perspective is closest to Wyatt, and where you learn the most about who (and what) Wyatt really is. Mildred’s story is that of a sharply intelligent woman pursuing the truth. Jesse is the unifying thread between all of the stories. 

Doc is still loyal to Wyatt, but coming to terms with the idea that there’s a lot more to Wyatt than meets the eye – and that Doc’s will isn’t entirely his own. I enjoyed this version of Doc because he’s in this fantasy world and he’s still wholly DOC. His dialogue is smart and well-mannered, and he has that playfulness that a certain brilliant actor made us expect from Doc Holliday. 

Mildred is a great female protagonist, and I discovered this book while specifically searching for awesome female-driven Westerns. She’s strong and independent, but almost always conducts herself appropriately for a widowed woman at that time. She gives you brave heroine amid supernatural circumstances without straying too far from the path. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

That’s the beauty of Territory – from the first pages it fills with more and more fantastical situations, yet it always feels like a great Western story. 

Author Bull’s attention to detail is what makes it work. It doesn’t feel like a fantasy writer trying to ‘do’ the West. You can tell that meticulous research was done on everything from the town and buildings to the clothing and even Jesse’s style of horse training. The descriptions are so vivid that at times it doesn’t even feel like you’re reading – you’re just floating like a mist on the air in the centre of every scene. 

Obviously Jesse Fox and Mildred Benjamin are fictitious characters created to round out this world in which Wyatt (and a couple of other famous faces I don’t want to give away!) are sorcerers. But Bull expertly styled the personalities and relationships of everyone who would have been present in Doc’s and Wyatt’s lives. The Earp women, Kate, ‘Sadie’ Marcus, Johnny Ringo… they’re all newly presented in ways that you’d never have expected, but fit perfectly into the fabric of this particular Tombstone. 

I’ve now read Territory twice, and let me tell you, that’s a HUGE f*cking deal. I rarely reread books, because I’m too excited to see what else is out there. But it’s so good that I absolutely had to review it. 

If you want to see Wyatt Earp in a whole new light (which is more like dark mode), this is 100% the book for you.