Wednesday, 5 September 2012
‘The Dead of Winter’ – Lee Collins (Angry Robot)
I’ve been going on about getting out of a ‘reading rut’ and ‘The Dead of Winter’ seemed like a good place to do just that. The concept is well worn but the setting intrigued me enough to pick the book up and give it a go. What the book did after that kept me reading until I was done. ‘The Dead of Winter’ isn’t a perfect read by any means but it did more than enough to have me looking forward to the sequel, ‘She Returns From War’, whenever that it is published.
Cora Oglesby and her husband, Ben, hunt a different kind of bounty to what you would normally expect to find haunting the plains of the Old West. Their prey are the dark creatures of legend; creatures that shouldn’t exist but still delight in taking the blood of the innocent.
When the marshal of Leadville, Colorado, comes across a pair of mysterious bloody deaths, he turns to Cora to find the creature responsible, but if Cora is to overcome the unnatural tide threatening to consume the small town, she must first confront her own tragic past as well as her present.
We’ve all read Urban Fantasy tales of bounty hunters searching out vampires and so on. Some of us have probably read similar stories set in the Old West; I haven’t so it made for a refreshing change in setting for me. That was a chunk of the reason why I kept reading but the main reason was the hints I got at a tragic past for Cora. I thought I knew what this would be so kept reading, if only to say ‘oh no, not again…’ The twist in the tale turned out to be a real surprise though; mostly because Collins tells you what it is right from the start but keeps it so low key that you’ve got no real idea until it creeps up onto your shoulder and taps you on the head…
The moment where it all clicks is masterfully handled by Collins. One minute I was reading the book, the next minute I was flicking back through the pages thinking things like ‘how did I miss that?’ and ‘bloody hell…’ Cora’s character is cast in a whole new light (you now know where she got her nickname from) and this revelation provides fresh impetus just when the plot needs it. I was also left wondering if there is a question yet to be answered in the sequel… You can’t ask for a lot more than that and it’s all brilliantly handled.
The rest of the plot settles into the more familiar territory of unworldly creatures being hunted down before they can hunt down others. Collins does a fine job here with the whole ‘thrill of the hunt’ theme. There were several moments where I found myself holding my breath as Cora made her way through a mine tunnel and she could hear footsteps coming towards her. My favourite bit though had to be where Cora is sat by the trapdoor, waiting for something to come out… Collins really draws out the tension in these passages and I couldn’t help but carry on reading, even as I was yelling at the book for Cora to get the hell out. The only moments that top this are when various monsters find their way onto the streets of Leadville. Collins clearly knows that the best way to tell this kind of story is to make all your characters expendable, no matter how much you’ve already built them up. No-one is safe here and that just adds more adrenaline to the mix.
The only thing I’d quibble about is how much attention Collins pays to the landscape that the story is set against. On the whole, a bleak and hard picture of Colorado really complements the plot but, every now and then, Collins feels the need to really go to town with his descriptive prose. Unfortunately, I found that these moments sometimes clash with key moments in the plot and the flow is derailed abruptly (albeit briefly) as a result. I’d say that the background really needs to remain as background if the plot is going to shine in the way that it deserves.
On the whole though, I got a lot out of this brooding supernatural Western tale that turns in your grasp and bites you like a rattlesnake when you’re least expecting it. ‘The Dead of Winter’ (a title you’ll appreciate more once you’ve read the book) is a gripping read that has left me eager for the sequel.
Nine and a Quarter out of Ten
P.S. 'The Dead of Winter' gets its UK release on the 1st of November, US and Canadian readers will get it the day before.