I’m beginning to understand why, so often, a writer’s first book makes a big splash while later books seem to trail off a litte. It’s because in that first book, a storyteller tells you the best story that’s in her to tell, while later on she’s done something that writers refer to as “honing their craft”, which too often translates into learning how not to tell a story.

I am, as I’ve said before, a simple and literal-minded reader. I like being told a story. I like it best when a story is multilayered, when it makes me think while entertaining me, but if it’s not telling a story then it’s lost me from the start. (Terry Pratchet is a master, a man who’s gone from telling a funny story to telling a reader something important without ever forgetting how to tell a funny story.)

I’ve just finished Territory. Emma Bull is a writer who’s written three outstanding books, one I don’t like, and a couple that are good reads. I think at least one of the good ones, Bone Dance, was a trial of some new things; it didn’t succeed well enough for me to call it great but it’s compelling enough for me to reread now and then, and I still find new things in it. Of her outstanding books, everyone I know of who likes that sort of thing loves War for the Oaks; it’s edgy and compelling, it mixed current times with fantasy in a way that was new then, it had characters you cared about, and it told a good story that was none the worse for its long literary antecedents (though there’s as much in it from Prince as from Thomas the Rhymer).

My favorite so far is her Freedom and Necessity, co-written with Steven Brust. There’s foreshadowing in it of what bothers me about Tombstone; there’s the middle and end of a story there, but the beginning is left for the reader to learn and infer. It doesn’t bother me much in that book, because I have enough clues to figure out the part of the plot I care about, the history of the main four characters. There’s a lot I’d like to know about the part the Hellfire Club plays in the foundations of the story and I wish I had a few more clues about the way magic matters or doesn’t matter to the book, but I’m a character-driven read and I know what I need to know about Susan and James, Kitty and Richard, so I’m satisfied enough.

Territory is going to be remembered; it’s as powerful as War for the Oaks and Freedom and Necessity, and it deals with an iconic and mysterious part of American history. It presents a new and different view of the one of the main actors in that episode, one that even after subtracting the fantasy and alternate-history parts of hte book is worth thinking over. It’s better than good. But for me it’s flawed; sometimes I get the feeling that, for authors writing for other authors, in both poetry and prose, the cardinal sin is to be too easily understood, and that’s the feeling I get here. What this is, to me, is an excellent and stellar middle of a book. The beginning is left to the reader to deduce. That’s not a major problem; we have just enough backstory to figure it out, though I’d still like to know more about the shared past of Jesse Fox and Chow Lun just because it would be so much fun to read. But the end, too, is a matter of mere implication. We know it’s there; it’s hanging over the story like an anvil about to fall from the moment you read the title. For anyone who knows anything about the American West, the mention of Tombstone brings to mind only one event. Within the story, though, its direction is only indicated by the most subtle of brushstrokes. A knowledge of history doesn’t help; the path of history is changed enough by the events of the story to make the shoot-out at the OK Corral take a new turn. Whether toward or away from history – and the actual history of the affair is complicated enough already – is a matter of judgement.

And that’s where my complaint lies. I know there needs to be misdirection and complexity in a story to make it worth the telling, but sometimes I get the impression that writers are writing for other writers (or people who think like other writers, which for this purpose includes publishers) who find a simple track too boring to follow. So, OK, it’s a great book and I will be rereading it, certainly. And I’m not the most analytical of readers, certainly not the first time through and not with the wine I’ve got in me tonight as I finished the book. But, goddammit it, is it too much to ask that an author tell me the whole story instead of leaving me to follow trail from the scent on the wind and the disturbance of the dirt underfoot?