'Silver On The Road' Is A Pure American Myth

Silver on the Road ( )
Silver on the Road ( )

There's magic in the West, and weirdness not easily explained. The deserts are a place of ghostly silences and inexplicable sounds in the night. The mountains have a pull that is magnetic — the kind of thing you can feel in your sleep. The wind will mess with your dreams.

None of this has anything to do with Laura Anne Gilman's new book, Silver on the Road. I lived in the west — spent a decade or more in what Gilman calls simply "the Territory" — and that's just the way things are. So she's chosen a fertile place to begin her new series (the broad plains, red rock and looming mountains of the American West), and amped up the oddity of it all by planting the Devil there as a card dealer, fancy-pants and owner of a saloon in a town called Flood.

And the Devil, he runs the Territory. Owns it in a way. Wards it against things meaner than he is, because Gilman's Devil isn't exactly the church-y version. He's dapper in a fine suit and starched shirt. He's power incarnate — a man (no horns, no forked tail, just a hint of brimstone now and then) who gets things done; who offers bargains to any who come asking and always keeps to the terms because, as everyone in the territory knows, "The Devil runs an honest house." He never asks for anything you're not prepared to give, never gives anything that doesn't have a price.

So when Isobel, who has worked since childhood as an indenture in the Devil's house, comes of age and has the chance to cut her own deal with Old Scratch, she gives the only thing she owns — herself — into the employ of the Boss and becomes the Devil's Left Hand.

"The right hand gathers and gives, visible to all," he tells her. "But the Left Hand, Isobel, the manu sinistra? It moves in shadows, unseen, unheard ... It is the strength of the Territory, the quick knife in the darkness, the cold eye and the final word."

In order to learn her new trade, Isobel takes to the road under the mentorship of Gabriel (yeah, no foreshadowing there...), one of a loose organization of "riders" who go from town to town delivering mail, carrying news, helping folks in need and just generally (conveniently) keeping an eye on things in the Devil's West (which, unsurprisingly, is the name Gilman has given to her new series, of which Silver on the Road is the first book).

Gilman has obviously read her Joseph Campbell and memorized the 12 steps of the hero's journey. Isobel proceeds rigidly through the paces — daily life, the call to adventure and the appearance of a mentor. She sets off on her journey, learning and growing along the path. To Gilman's credit, Isobel thinks and acts like a teenage girl saddled with both great responsibility and mysterious powers might — particularly one who has grown up as a saloon girl in close proximity to the Devil himself — but that's just mechanics and good writing.

No, what makes Silver on the Road readable and more than just an exercise in making mythology soup is that it all feels so ... pure.

That's not exactly the right word, but it's close. The book has an internal logic that holds together. The strangeness feels honestly strange, but rooted in the land like it'd been living there far longer than there have been eyes to appreciate it. The magic feels real and dirty and grounded and dangerous and uncontrollable. The Boss is a force whose influence holds the Territory together. And the people who populate Gilman's west seem sufficiently steeped in this mess of Christian theology, Native American shamanism, homespun desert magic and a healthy dose of purely American Weird that suddenly seeing a talking rattlesnake on the trail spouting doom-y prophecy only counts as maybe the third or fourth creepiest thing that might happen to them in a day.

All of which makes Silver take on the sheen and weight of forgotten history. Lost in the middle of the story, you'll feel somehow that you've always known the Devil wore a suit and ran a gambling house back in six-gun times, that he once sent a sixteen year old girl out into the world to fight monsters for him — and it's that echo in the brain that makes the thing hard to put down, because reading Silver on the Road is not like falling into some new and unfamiliar world.

It's more like a true American myth being found.

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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.