This is a book I wouldn’t ordinarily give a second glance on a library shelf. It’s an ambitious attempt to combine a western with the "hunter" subgenre of urban fantasy. I’m just not a fan of the western tropes or, in fact, the time period or setting. I don’t sympathize with the dangerous, romanticized nostalgia for a “simpler” time on the “frontier” when men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were … nowhere to be seen. So had The Dead of Winter offered itself to me on a library shelf, I would have moved it along. But because I subscribe to Angry Robot’s offerings, I try to read most, if not all, of what this entitles me to download. So I trudged on through The Dead of Winter and quickly found myself enjoying it.
On the surface, combining a western with supernatural hunters is a no-brainer. (Indeed, the TV series Supernatural is an example, as it embraces much of the western ethos and has explicitly borrowed elements of the western in some of its stories.) The western as a genre has much in common with science fiction. Both are heavily "genre" in the sense that they tend to exist within literary ghettos. Science fiction in many forms, or at least its pulpiest, is the western, but in space—this is how Star Trek was often pitched in its early days. Such comparisons don’t quite do these genres justice, though. The western and SF are similar because they are both settings, within which any story is possible, given enough imagination and careful planning.
The Dead of Winter works because Lee Collins has one goal and pursues it whole-heartedly. His sole purpose is to introduce us to Cora Oglesby and her husband, Ben. They are hunters of the supernatural in late-1800s America. This goal is ambitious enough, but because he doesn’t try to do too much, the end product is very focused and quite fun. For instance, he doesn’t spend too much time explaining the various types of monsters found in this universe. Obviously there are vampires, which come in two specific subspecies; there are also werewolves and wendigos, and I’m sure he mentioned one or two others. Aside from exposition on the nature of vampires, though, which is totally relevant to the plot, Collins resists the temptation to worldbuild through unnecessary infodumps. The result is clean, crisp prose and plot. This quality of writing is exactly what’s required to overcome a reader’s (mine) prejudice of a novel’s apparent genre or setting.
Also, Cora is an excellent protagonist. Collins’ characterization of her is masterful: he just drops things on us with a matter-of-fact attitude. I had no idea Cora was scarring her face as a mark of her kills until she does it after disposing of the wendigo. In that scene, Ben stands in for the reader in his obvious distaste and squeamishness over Cora’s actions: not only does he not enjoy the sight of her blood, but he obviously doesn’t like that she does this to herself. Cora kicks ass: she isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and she’s a tough fighter. She’s also flawed—a little too fond of drink, a little too hot-headed. But she recognizes these qualities in herself and has tried to compensate for them in Ben. This idea of a husband-wife team of hunters, one the scholar and one the warrior, really intrigued me.
Which is why I simultaneously hate and love Collins for the twist midway through the book.
It’s a twist worthy of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, which currently holds my personal record for most effective, most shattering plot twist. I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say that, in hindsight, it’s obvious. In fact, in contrast to Harkaway, who just pulls the rug out from under the reader without any sympathy, Collins telegraphs it quite a bit before he makes it explicit. He needles the reader, forcing us to doubt Cora and start wondering exactly what’s wrong, before he reveals the details of the situation. My only critique is that this would have been even more effective in first-person; first-person unreliable narrators are much more convincing than third-person ones.
Collins also does vampires right. No sparkles or veganism here. Vampires in The Dead of Winter are nasty, brutish animals—yet the nosferatu variety are also cunning and terrifying. I wasn’t all that impressed with the antagonist; he didn’t seem half as clever as he thought he was, and I never much worried that Cora would fail against him. Perhaps that’s why Collins sets it in Leadville—even if the reader doesn’t worry about Cora, they can worry about the casualty count in the town, as I did.
This is a world where the supernatural is real and present. Vampires and werewolves are facts of life on the frontier; you just pray they don’t bother your little homestead. But if they do, you need someone like Cora, with her blessed blade and her silver bullets, to back you up.
There is much to be said for reading books within your comfort zone. But I love when I take a chance on something I’m not enthusiastic about and the chance pays off. I can’t promise The Dead of Winter will work similarly for you, but I encourage you to take a chance on some book. You never know. I’m still not going to read straight-up westerns any time soon, but Cora’s next adventure is certainly on my list.