Night’s Tooth is a fantasy western. Everything we need to know about what this story is going to do is set up in the opening sentence.
Sumac tucks the brass buttons off the last Confederacy coat into his pocket, before tossing it into the dying fire.
Here we have a character with an interesting name. I happen to know that Sumac is a type of tree, known in Britain as Stag’s Horn. Is this relevant?
I always assume names are potentially important, and since I have the botanical reference in my head, every time Sumac is mentioned, I get a momentary memory of the tree. I also know that sumac powder can be bought for cooking with, though I’ve never used it.
But I digress. Why is Sumac keeping the buttons rather than the coats? That’s intriguing, particularly since the next sentence explains something of where he is, and where the coats have come from.
The road up from Bad Axe had been long and cold, and none of the Wanted papers mentioned anything about Slit Mick’s armed companions.
Confederacy coats confirm I’m in America, and the period is some time in, or after the 1860s. It’s winter, and Sumac has travelled a long way. He must be formidable, because in the next sentence we discover not only that he’s killed the whole gang, also that he ‘enjoyed‘ the challenge.
Sumac, then, is impressively ruthless. I won’t say admirably, since the next thing he does is to pick human flesh from between his teeth. In case we’ve misunderstood the significance of that, this section finishes with Sumac thinking about the dead men as part of the ‘food chain‘.
Here is no cosy hero, despite his appearance.
Sumac’s built like a god, a girl told him once, a god of the old country. He asked which country that was. She called it Norway.
Worrying as some of his actions and attitudes are, Sumac is the focus of our attention. The narration is third person, but we experience the world, and events, as he does. The gang, nearly blew Sumac’s ear clean off when he came for Mick, so it was only right Sumac had his fun with those worthless hunks of meat… Did you note that, ‘only right‘?
I can’t say I’m comfortable with the idea that Sumac had his fun. But I’m in the-world-of-story, and Jean is making it easy for me to accept the unacceptable. Besides, with a name like Slit Mick, the outcome was always going to be bloody. But just in case you did begin reading in the expectation of a traditional Western, that’s been rectified.
It soon becomes clear that Sumac is not human. Besides his appetites and attitudes, he is able to transform into a cougar and use natural magic. His observations about the way the world works are intriguingly alternative.
The men’s photographs are so grainy Sumac wonders why anyone bothers with that technological contraption of wood and glass to do what anyone’s done just fine with pencils and paint.
The narrative voice is also interesting. It’s third person, but so close to Sumac that it assumes the oddities of his sentence structures, a distinctive, colloquial, syntax. Look for instance, at what happens when Sumac arrives at the sheriff’s office, with Slit Mick’s body, to collect the two thousand dollar bounty.
Sumac makes no never mind about the bloody handprint he leaves on the knob.
There’s not much time to wonder, though. Slit Mick is small-fry compared to the big prize Sumac is really after, a mysterious character known as, Night’s Tooth.
“Sumac don’t dare lose him, not now, not when he’s so close Sumac can catch his canine scent riding the snow and coal dust.”
The hunt is on. We’ve yet to discover the true nature of any of the creatures roaming the town, or the full extent of what is at stake. This is an edge of the seat, full speed journey, with plenty of unexpected twists.