BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In an alternate 19th century, a young woman rises to the challenge of becoming the left hand of the diabolic figure that rules the West.
PROS: Strong characterization, particularly of the main characters Isobel and Gabriel; excellent sense of place; author’s prose hits on all cylinders; striking cover art that the book lives up to.
CONS: A bit more worldbuilding is needed to fill in the lines of the world.
BOTTOM LINE: Laura Anne Gilman jumps into the burgeoning subgenre of the Weird West with aplomb.
A young woman comes of age in the town of Flood and bargains with the Devil to walk the road into the West as his agent in Silver on the Road, a Weird Western from Laura Anne Gilman.
On Gilman’s alternate Earth, the Devil, Old Scratch himself has a hefty slice of the North American continent west of the Mississippi River, north of Spanish Mexico. It’s his own personal fief that he rules with a mixture of freedom and absolute power only possible for someone who is confident in their autarchic strength. Enter Isobel Lacoyo Tavora. Isobel, or more commonly Izzy or Iz, has worked in the saloon in the town of Flood where the Devil makes his deals, and has reached 16, the age of majority. Her indenture and status as a ward since the age of 2 is finally over. She’s offered the opportunity to become the Devil’s manu sinestra, his Left Hand. The Devil also has the perfect person to educate and train her on the ways of the Road, too, a man who has come to Flood for reasons of his own. And so an uneasy relationship between Isobel and Gabriel is born.
The growth and development of the young Isobel into her power and position is the heart and soul of Silver on the Road. The tension between what Isobel learned working in the saloon, how the world really works, and how hard it is to live up to the expectations of the Devil make for an uneasy narrative. As the esoteric elements of the novel slowly unfold, Isobel learns that she has the potential to develop and wield great power.
The mentor-mentee relationship between Gabriel and Isobel is extremely well done. There’s excellent worldbulding and character development, as we learn about the importance and danger of crossroads, the customs and traditions of native and non-native settlements alike, and just what it means to be the Devil’s Left Hand, both what Gabriel thinks, and what Isobel thinks of that position.. There is a strong theme of responsibility and duty, and the consequences of keeping one’s word, and breaking it, shoots through the novel like a crackle of lightning.
The writing is the best I’ve ever read from Laura Anne Gilman’s pen. Be it the saloon in flood, or dark doings on the road, or a conversation between Isobel and miners in a tense meeting, the word choice and the craft of writing is beautifully evocative.
That said, the novel could stand to do a touch more worldbuilding. It’s an alternate Earth, and I would have liked to know a little more about the background and how else things changed with the literal Devil lording over a chunk of the western half of the North American continent. There are a few hints throughout, but I would have loved to see it fleshed out a bit more.
Silver on the Road marks a major landmark in the burgeoning subgenre of Weird West Fantasy, and in my opinion the best novel, on all fronts, that Laura Anne Gilman has written to date. Anyone vaguely interested in her work, or in Weird Westerns, should take the coin of the Devil and ride the road with Isobel and Gabriel to find out what’s in the Devil’s West. Isobel’s journey begins here and while the novel ends on a strong note, it is clear that she has miles to ride on the Road yet. I can’t wait for the sequel.