by Mark Sumner

Del Rey


340pp/$5.99/November 1996

Devil's Tower

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

On April 6, 1862, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant met the Confederate army, led by Albert S. Johnston met in battle at Pittsburg Landing Tennessee and fought a battle near the church of Shiloh.  When the battle ended the next day, 13,000 Northerners and 10,700 Confederates, including General Johnston, lay dead and Grant began to push back the Confederate forces.  In the world depicted in Mark Sumner's Devil's Tower, this event also marked the return of magic into the world.

Devil's Tower takes place about ten years later, after the magic has managed to spread across the entire continent.  Some, but by no means all, people now have "talents," folkloric magical abilities such as scribbling, the ability to conjure through drawing or writing, to chattering, a form of speaking in tongues.   The biggest change these talents have effected seems to be that now a town needs a sheriff who has a talent in order to protect them from outlaws.  In a massive game of king of the hill, a new sheriff can gain control of a town simply be defeating the old sheriff in a magical duel.

Jake Bird's father was the sheriff of Calio until he was killed in a duel by George Custer who told him to "die," and he did.  Jake fled Calio and his stepmother to make his own way in life, eventually landing in the town of Medicine Rock, where Sheriff Pridy sensed that he had talent and was trying to bring it to fruition when Jake was once again forced to flee his town.

The book is a mixture of a coming of age story as Jake learns how to control his talent and step into responsibility.  Along the way, Sumner shows to reader various places in his version of Wyoming, none of which really stand apart.  Focusing almost entirely on Jake and his quest of knowledge and revenge, Sumner ignores the social changes which the introduction of magic would have brought into this world.  Perhaps the most interesting change could have been dealt with in the character of Reverend Peerson, who could have expounded on the religious attitude towards these changes which Sumner's characters seem to take for granted after only ten years.

At one point, Hatty, a water witch, notes that adults don't suddenly acquire talents.   However, if talents only reemerged ten years before Devil's Tower, it seems that any adult in the book with a talent would have had to acquire it suddenly.   Furthermore, these people seem to understand the way talents work much better than would be expected given the short period of time since they manifested.

Sumner has developed an interesting idea, although he does not successfully exploit it in Devil's Tower.  The world, if not the specific characters and situations, are certainly worth revisiting to see how talents will play out, particularly in light of Custer's contention that people with talents will form a new species of human, superior to those without talents.

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