Novel of the week: Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman

The Devil sent me Silver on the Road, the new novel by Laura Anne Gilman. The book appeared on my doorstep one day in a nondescript brown envelope (suggesting the Postal Service might be in league with said Devil, but that's a exploration for another time).

I opened the envelope, wondered who sent me the book, then tossed it onto my to-read pile. Maybe, I thought, reacting as I do to any strange book which shows up unannounced in my life. Maybe I'll read it.

Glad I did. And bless the Devil or whoever sent the book to me because my new novel of the week is this captivating rewriting of the history of the American West.

Except in Gilman's reimagined mix of fantasy and history, the United States — which is only a generation away from independence — doesn't hold sway over the lands west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rockies. Instead, the West is ruled by a mystical creature the rest of the world curses as the Devil.

Except rules is the wrong word because the Devil doesn't rule. He simply keeps the Americans, English, French and Spanish from moving into the West. The Devil has also set a few simple rules which keep the peace among the West's various residents, including the different Native American nations, settler groups, demons, mystical creatures and wandering magicians.

The Devil's most important rule is to not give offense to others, meaning stay out of others' affairs unless asked. But telling the rest of the world to leave the West alone doesn't fit with ideas of manifest destiny and a duty to convert the heathens, so the West is under constant threat of invasion and destruction.

Silver on the Road is told through the eyes of Isobel, a sixteen-year-old human girl raised in the Devil's household. Isobel is sent across the West to learn about the land and to be the Devil's Left Hand, his eyes and out-reached power keeping at bay the world powers who covet this magical land. But as she travels Isobel can't help but question the deal she's made with the Devil and wonder what it will do to both her life and the lands and people around her.

I've enjoyed Laura Anne Gilman's previous novels and stories but with Silver on the Road she creates an entirely different level of fiction, an exciting mix of world creation and character study and realignment of fantasy and history. Part road novel and part coming of age story, Silver on the Road is well written and insightful.

Even though Silver on the Road is the first part of a series — the novel's subtitle is The Devil's West, Book 1 — I found this story as satisfying as a stand-alone tale. I look forward to the sequels and highly recommend this novel to others.