Isobel has grown up in the town of Flood, in the saloon inhabited by the Old Man, the devil himself. It is known to all who live in the Territory, the area west of the Mississippi, that the devil always deals a fair hand. If you make a Bargain with him, he will give you exactly what you want, but you need to be careful you are sure exactly what you ask for. When Isobel turns sixteen, she is free to make her own way in the world, or to stay in Flood, continuing to work in the saloon. Yet Isobel yearns for more. She wants respect and power and the devil offers to make her his Left Hand. He already has a Right Hand, serving him well. Now he offers Isobel the chance to travel the Territory and be his eyes and ears. She accepts, despite warnings from others, but realises very quickly that she had no idea what she signed up for.
The day after her Bargain is signed, Isobel is sent off into the wilderness accompanied by Gabriel Katsun, an enigmatic card sharp who offered to mentor her on the road. Isobel is confused and a bit hurt that she's being sent away from the only home she's ever known, but can't deny that she's being given exactly what she was dreaming of before her birthday. Not that she's given any indication of what she's supposed to do or learn while on her journey. This is clearly something the devil expects her to discover on her own. After a few initially rough days, as Isobel gets accustomed to riding and sleeping rough, they settle into a pleasant routine. As they ride further away from Flood though, it's clear that there is something badly wrong going on in the Territory, some mysterious evil of unknown origin, causing sudden sickness or whole towns to be emptied entirely of both people and livestock. While she feels helpless and confused, it's also clear that as the devil's Left Hand, it is young Isobel's job to track down the source of this contamination and try to stop it.
I really didn't know entirely what to expect from this book, but it appeared on more than one best of 2015 list in the latter half on last year, and the premise sounded intriguing. The devil in control of a large area of land in the Old West, with a sixteen year old girl as his agent? The book was on sale after Christmas, and as is so often the case, I bought it and promptly forgot about it, until it was selected as the May 2016 selection of the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club. Having followed the ladies for four years, I am fully aware that there are the occasional great selections and the frequently quite rubbish selections in this club. This book has a solid 4.0 rating on Goodreads however, and I remembered all those positive reviews I'd read. It seemed like a good time to try something different.
Unlike my husband, I'm not really a huge fan of Westerns. I've seen a few, and I watched the husband play through the entirety of Red Dead Redemption, but it's not a genre that I have a lot of experience with or find especially appealing. This book takes its time to establish the setting and the characters, and because we follow along with Isobel, we learn as she learns. That means things are only very slowly revealed and the reader needs to be patient. Don't expect a break-neck pace or a number of thrilling action set-pieces (although there's absolutely a creeping danger lurking and the occasional really shocking display of danger). A lot of the book is Isobel and Gabriel slowly riding through the countryside, with Isobel learning the ways of the riders and the lay of the land.
This is an alternate history of sorts, where while the United States were in their infancy, the large unsettled area west of the Mississippi is controlled by the man the Christians like to name the devil. He is clearly a man of great power, but it doesn't seem unlimited and he certainly doesn't tempt men or women into sin, as they are more than capable of doing that themselves. Within his territory, his word is law and he has ancient agreements with the native peoples and the various creatures and spirits who dwell there. Different rules apply, and its inhabitants are sometimes blessed with unusual powers. Gabriel, for instance, can sense water and Isobel's old friend Alice can coax plants to grow. After making her bargain with the devil, Isobel becomes aware that she too has powers, but are they her own to do with as she pleases, or is she but a tool for the Old Man?
While Isobel and Gabriel spend a lot of time alone on the road together, there is refreshingly not a hint of romantic tension between them, only a growing friendship and the bond between an mentor and his charge. Gabriel has made his own bargain with the devil, putting himself in that man's debt. By taking Isobel around the territory, protecting her and showing her the ways of the riders, Gabriel will, at the end of a successfully completed mission, be given a measure of peace. He is a mysterious character, whose past is not fully revealed, but it is clear that for reasons not yet revealed to Isobel and the reader, he is bound to the Territory somehow, and the years he spent away in the United States came at a cost to him. He is connected to the land in a different way from Isobel, although I suspect the extent to which and the truth of his origin will be revealed in a later book.
This is a coming of age story, with Isobel having lived a sheltered life for her first sixteen years, wishing for more than she could handle and having to come to terms with what her bargain will actually entail. As the true extent of the danger is revealed, her initial instincts implore her to tuck her tail between her legs and flee back to Flood. This is obviously not an option, however, and as the story progresses, Isobel, cast adrift without any real guidance, has to try to figure out she can actually do in her capacity as the Left Hand of the devil and what responsibilities comes with the bargain she struck. While there are other powerful beings in the Territory, she acts for the Old Man and is therefore expected to figure out a solution. She may only be sixteen, and she may not have known what she actually asked for, but she's stuck in the bargain she made, and does a lot of growing up over the course of the story.
This is clearly the first book in a series, and while some of the danger has defeated and contained at the end of the story, there is clearly much left to do for Isobel and Gabriel and according to the author's website, the second book is out in October of this year. As I really liked the world-building, the quiet pacing, the various characters established and am intrigued to see where the story goes next, I'm absolutely going to keep my eye out for any sequels. This was a surprising and satisfying read.
Judging a book by its cover: It's not exactly the most exciting of covers, and I doubt I would have added this book to my TBR list and later bought it in an e-book sale, if there hadn't been so much positive hype about this book in the second half of last year. The cover isn't very flashy, but captures the content remarkably well. This is a slow-paced and introspective book and the many earth tones of the cover fit the story really well. The dusty ground, the sparse mountains. The dark-haired, plainly dressed girl, clearly meant to be Isobel, glowing with silver light to show her powers and connection with the Territory. Having all the writing be in silver, the colour of protection is also fitting. Now that I've read the book, I'm glad they didn't do something colourful and attention-grabbing with the cover. It's simple and elegant and very fitting.