The Dead of Winter – Lee Collins

Another ARC from Angry Robot, this is the debut novel from Lee Collins. I can’t remember when I started reading this one, as I’ve since borrowed a bunch of library books which I always feel the need to get out of the way first. Nothing like the threat of late fines to rearrange your reading pile.

From the blurb:

Cora and her husband hunt things – things that shouldn’t exist.

When the marshal of Leadville, Colorado, comes across a pair of mysterious 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.

I think if that’s all I’d had to go on, I may not have picked this one up, but I also knew from Angry Robot’s newsletter, that it was a western/fantasy/horror which really peaked my interest. I’m not a huge fan of horror in general but love westerns, which always remind me of Sunday afternoons sitting in front of the TV with Dad as a young girl, trying desperately to follow the plot of those long old movies starring John Wayne or his contemporaries. And as you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I’m pretty much in love with fantasy fiction.

Though the novel is written in third person, most of the action follows Cora. As a main character she fits this novel, and this setting, so well: she’s ballsy, brash, and hard-bitten in a way you imagine so many lone ranger types are. And yet, her fondness for her husband and his bookish ways give her enough softness to be likable.  Each of the supporting characters are individual, and easy to distinguish. I particularly liked the Sheriff, who, despite initially being skeptical about the existence of monsters, and the merits of hiring ‘monster hunters’, quickly comes to terms with the reality and learns to fight the terrors.

Collins really nails the balance between western and horror in the novel, with the plot moving at a slow boil punctuated by periods of intense action – this heightens the tension and suspense about the monster stalking the village. The slower pace (though at times a bit too slow for me, who is used to snappy urban-fantasy and YA) also lets the world building shine. The town and its surrounds are not overly described, with a standard sheriff’s office, brothel, bar, train station and assorted buildings, but the feel of the world comes from the characters which inhabit it, the way they speak, and the weapons they use. Though the creatures are familiar  Collins gives each of them a twist, and the monster which first assaults the town is as creepy as all hell. Something about the distortion of human limbs, and faces makes a creature even more scary than something which is entirely unfamiliar.

Unfortunately, the final confrontation with the monster from Cora’s past fell a little flat for me. Realistic, but anti-climatic, less because of the action than the lack of emotional resolution. Perhaps this is more to do with being used to genre tropes than anything, but after building up this monster, Collins doesn’t give Cora a big glorious battle. It’s hard to get into specifics without revealing too much, but when all’s said and done it feels more like putting down a dangerous animal than defeating an enemy. Going back to my being used to more fantasy tropes, it’s possible this end feeling is more consistent with a Western, posse and all. It was pretty realistic – I just wanted more.

In summary, though this book took me a while to finish, and there were parts I thought needed improvement, it was an enjoyable read, and I think a genre which could see a fair bit of growth. As a first novel it was extremely promising and since a sequel is to be released some time soon, it’ll be interesting to see how Collins continues to develop the world, and his writing. I think I remember that there’s a new young female character in the sequel, and I find myself curious to see if Cora will soften more, or if her Eastwood-like tendancies will continue to be a permanent character fixture.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Dead of Winter – Lee Collins

  1. I blame the holes in story and research on it being written in NaNoWriMo. But the plot is well thought out, the story is fast-paced where it needs to be and the lead character is… well, colorful, too say the least.

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