The Dead of Winter by Lee Collins – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews another Angry Robot 2012 debut title, this one about the Wild West and Vampires and other supernaturals.
“Stunning, mind-blowing, amazing, fan-frikkin-tastic. None of those word can convey just how much I liked The Dead of Winter. I can’t even tell, although I know better, that this novel is a debut and not an author’s best at the peak of his career.” ~The Founding Fields
I’ve asked myself a question every month of the year: “Can Angry Robot do no wrong?”. The context: I’ve read 16 of their titles this year, and of them all, there are only 2 that I found didn’t work for me, just 2! And there are several titles coming out that I’m really excited about, more so since they are sequels to books that I really enjoyed, which is a win-win in my book. Lee Collins’ debut The Dead of Winter, the first Cora Oglesby novel, joins the ranks of Angry Robot’s best titles of 2012 and certainly one of the best debuts of the year as well. I never thought that I’d enjoy a Western so much, given that I rarely even watch a Western, let alone read one. The last Western I can recall reading is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, one of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, as well as A Study in Scarlet, the first of those novels. In terms of movies, the last one I’ve seen is Cowboys versus Aliens, which was surprisingly good. So yeah, not much experience in the genre.
But as matters stand now, The Dead of Winter has kindled a love for the Western genre in me and I’m definitely open to reading more within it.
The novel is about the husband-wife bounty hunter duo of Ben Oglesby and Cora Oglesby, who travel the Old West hunting down all manner of supernatural creatures, whether Vampires or Werewolves or any other sort. They’ve been doing it for a long time, 10 years at least if I recall correctly, and they are good at what they do. Which is why when they roll into Leadville, Colorado Cora makes Marshal Mart Duggan an offer he can’t refuse. He grudgingly recognizes her expertise, giving her the benefit of the doubt, and charges her with finding out just what the hell is going on around his town. From there on, it is non-stop action as Cora and Ben take on all sorts of Vampires, make new friends, lose a few and find their lives changed irrevocably for the worst when their past comes back to haunt them.
Feel free in the comments to correct me if I’m wrong but the Wild West isn’t a setting that suits strong female characters. It is an exemplification of “might-makes-right” and “only men have the might” and gunfighters and outlaws and sheriffs. It is fine to a degree, and I really have no complaints about it since I read so little in the genre anyway, but it still strikes me as untapped potential. It is a potential that Lee Collins explores fully with impressive flair. Cora Oglesby joins the ranks of awesome female characters such as Rachel Boucher from Teresa Frohock’s Miserere: An Autumn’s Tale, Blackbird from Adam Christopher’s Seven Wonders, Alix Nico from G. T. Almasi’s Blades of Winter, Infidel from James Maxey’s Greatshadow, and Valkia from Sarah Cawkwell’s Valkia the Bloody among others. She is our protagonist and she gets a lot of attention from the author in terms of how she is portrayed. She isn’t some stay-at-home-and-cook housewife, she is an in-your-face bounty hunter who knows how to take care of herself around all sorts of villains and monsters. Mostly.
At first she is all mysterious and stuff, but her personality, her attitudes, her motivations are gradually teased out of her and onto the pages. She embodies the sense of adventure, dangerous adventure, that I see permeate the Wild West setting. After all, it takes a very unique mindset to decide you want to dedicate the rest of your life to hunting supernatural monsters straight out of children’s horror stories, and actually doing so month after month, year after year. Which then, for Cora, dovetails into her reflections on the life she’s led so far, and how she might eventually retire with Ben to a profession that is decidedly less exciting than spook-hunting: a printing press, his father’s old business.
Cora can be charming at times, in the rough-edged sort of way, and she can be all “die, Vampire, die!” when the situation calls for it. She drinks and gambles, but is religious to her core since she considers a Priest, Father Baez of Denver, to be her mentor, confidante and friend. She is socially awkward at the best of times and treats most people around her with condescension but she loves Ben with a great warmth. Aggressive and flawed, Cora is one heck of a character to be reading about.
The Dead of Winter focuses on her quite a bit so she is the star of the novel but she is assisted by a great many characters along the way, many of them do get their one minute of fame. Marshal Duggan is one such man. He is a (from what I’ve given to understand) a fairly typical mining town Marshal, which is to say he drinks a lot and is old and grumpy, but he still can put a hell of a lot of lead in you if he wants to. When the novel starts, he is the first character we meet and his fear of the unknown being that has killed a bunch of Leadville folk is the first emotional moment in the novel, but there are times when he rises above that. He is very much like Cora in that regard. He’s a lawman of the Wild West but he is also one who will admit his failings, although he hates doing that.
Then there’s James Townsend, a British scholar recently arrived to the “legendary American West” (as he calls it) on some business for his employer, a Lord Harcourt of London. We actually don’t see much of his character, but the scenes he is in have a charm of their own. He is like Rupert Giles fromBuffy the Vampire Slayer, except not as much of an action man, preferring his books and scrolls to swinging swords and thrusting stakes. In the middle of the book and for the second half, he is one of the driving influences on Cora as she considers retiring from spook-hunting and taking up a different profession. Loremaster, in the same style as James Townsend, is one of the professions she considers. Where Marshal Duggan offers an aggressive and somewhat contemptuous look at Cora, he is the exact opposite. Throw him we see a more introspective and soft side to her. Much as with father Beaz, he becomes a temporary mentor and ally to her as she hunts down the big bad menace of Leadville that is threatening the work at Lard Harcourt’s silver mine north of the town. Without him, the novel would not have been as enjoyable as it was.
The book title blurb calls it a story where “True Grit means True Blood“. I can’t speak to the former as I haven’t seen the film,but the latter is on the money. The vampire villain is very similar to various such characters on the HBO show. However, honestly speaking I think that the show is much more than that. My friend Ken from the Paperless Reading blog called it very Joss Whedon-esque, and I’m inclined to agree. Could be that like Buffy, Cora is a vampire hunter, a Slayer of sorts and that they are both strong female characters in a world of “strong men”, that they are…. oddities. I see hints of both Buffy and Angel in the novel. It portrays Vampires as they should be: crass, hedonistic, bloodthirsty, violent and brutal. Very much like Matt Forbeck’s Vampires in his Titanic/Vampires mash-up novel Carpathia, also from Angry Robot.
The story itself is incredibly compelling. It is divided into two parts: the first deals with a fairly regular spook-hunt for Cora and Ben although there are some great twists as to the identity of the monster; the second deals with a much bigger threat, an actual Vampire nest near Leadville, the problem that James Townsend has come to investigate on behalf of his master. The way it is structured works because the first half gives us ample time to get familiar with Cora, her husband and how the two of them go about their business and the second half provides them with one of their biggest challenges, one that tests them to their absolute limits and then some. There are also a lot of flashbacks in the second half, flashbacks which reveal Cora’s own hurtful past from 10 years ago. Lee Collins also writes a very fast-paced prose which never lets you pause to sit down and take a drink, you just have to keep up with his relentless pace as Cora and Ben go about doing their thing. The pacing is just about perfect.
And finally, the last thing I wanted to talk about: the cover art. Go anywhere on the internet and you will find that pretty much 99% of paranormal or supernatural or urban fantasy titles with female protagonists will show these characters in an overtly sexualised way, with tattoos and bare midriffs and short/small clothes and swords and such. Not so with The Dead of Winter. We have Cora Oglesby and her husband in full-on “don’t you dare mess with me, spook” mode while they are fully period-clothed. And Cora carries a rifle, not a sword. There’s nothing sexual or seductive about her pose or expression but it still conveys that she is a badass character without resorting to the current (and often deplorable) trend in urban fantasy. So kudos to Angry Robot for breaking from that mold!
The Dead of Winter is a fantastic novel which is even most fantastic than I’ve managed to convey in my review. It is definitely one of my best reads of the year, let alone the month, and Lee Collins has shown himself to be a really promising and talented writer with his snappy, fast-paced prose and masterful plotting. My recommendation would be to go out and grab this as soon as you can because it is definitely another winning title from Angry Robot.