With all due respect to Steve Earle, the devil’s right hand is a largely overrated appendage. In Laura Anne Gilman’s stark, sparkling Silver on the Road, the star of the show is the devil’s nimble, freshly minted left hand: Isobel, not a day over 16, reared alongside saloon girls and gamblers, and very suddenly sent off on a Western odyssey she cannot begin to understand.
But first, let us reintroduce ourselves to the devil. In Gilman’s skillful hands, he’s not the one you know. It’s the early 19th century, and America has yet to Manifest Destiny its way across the continent. Instead, the map west of the Mississippi River is simply known as the Territory—a wild west filled with demons, magicians, and all other manner of supernatural beings—and it is ruled by one man, so to speak.
The boss, as he is known to Isobel and the residents of the town of Flood, is a fair, if not quite benevolent, overlord. He’ll neither cheat you at the poker table, nor swindle you into a deal. All the devil asks is a bargain.
“When you deal with the devil, first know what you want, and what you can pay,” Isobel says, and she would know. Left in the boss’s indenture as an infant by parents who’d made their mistakes, Isobel has a choice to make on her 16th birthday: remain in her sheltered life in Flood, or seek her fortunes elsewhere.
Ultimately, she sticks with the devil she knows and enters the boss’s service, not as one of his saloon girls or servers, but as his Left Hand, the roaming enforcer of the long arm of his law. Izzy the girl is sent out on the road, alongside her charming yet mysterious mentor, Gabriel, to become Isobel, the devil’s surrogate.
Gabriel has a few secrets of his own, which is to be expected of anyone who makes a bargain with the devil. His task is to fashion Isobel into a hardened road warrior. But the sly card sharp and his charge run into more than the usual bandits and spirits.
A darkness looms over the Devil’s West, and the person tasked with stopping it is a teenager who’s earned her boss’s trust but not her own. While Isobel may perfectly capture all the feelings of inadequacy of adolescence—who am I? What do I want out of life? How do I menstruate on the open road?—she’s also a modern encapsulation of the hero’s journey.
In fact, that’s what Gilman does best here, infusing the classic with the modern. Her cocktail of Western folklore, Native American mythos, and known history are seamless, and will be a particular treat to fans of the other master of that kind of mashup, Neil Gaiman.
Even with all the narrative sorcery, however, none of this hard-tinged Western works without a central character worth rooting for. Isobel is a heroine in the best sense of the word. She’s flawed, well-intentioned, self-doubting, at times self-righteous (in short, a teenager). While Gabriel begins as her teacher, that relationship evens out rather quickly, and it’s worth reading just to watch her evolution as a character and as a young woman—not to mention all the other reasons to read, like haughty roadside magicians.
“I am the cold eye and the final word,” Isobel says, assuming the mantle of her new life. Thankfully, this is merely the first book in Gilman’s series, and Izzy hasn’t had the final word just yet.