She Returns From War by Lee Collins (Book Review)

Lee Collins’ She Returns From War is the sequel to his 2012 debut The Dead of Winter and it continues the adventures of Wild West spook-hunter Cora Oglesby. After the strong debut, I expected and wanted Lee Collins to do a similarly grand job with the sequel, which is exactly where is excelled at since She Returns From War is a great follow-up to The Dead of Winter. It starts off many years after the evens of The Dead of Winter, and charts Cora’s return to spook-hunting, after she gave up following the events of that first novel, wherein she learned a terrible secret about herself. And just like its predecessor, She Returns From War also made it to one of my “best of…” lists, this time for the “Best of 2013 Part 1“.

This review is a repost of the original review on The Founding Fields, which can be found here.

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I thought it would be tough for Lee Collins to build on the success of his debut, but with this book he has proved me wrong.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

Lee Collins arrived on the publishing scene late last year with a novel set in the wild west where the protagonist was both female and a badass vampire hunter, or spook hunter as she would call herself. The Dead of Winter was one of my absolute favourite reads of 2012, and also made both my “Best of the Best Part 2″ list, as well as my “Best Debuts of 2012″ list. It was that good, as far as I’m concerned. Reading such a damn strong debut always makes me wonder if the author can live up to the expectations built in by that success for a sequel, or a debut book. Angry Robot’s other 2-book 2012 debut authors I’ve read – Adam Christopher, Anne Lyle, Chris F. Holm – have all been impressive, and I wondered the same about Lee Collins. When it comes to genre fiction, Angry Robot authors definitely set a very high bar, and with his latest book, Lee Collins has proven that yet again, because She Returns From War is a most excellent novel, and lives up to the promise of The Dead of Winter.

With She Returns From War Lee Collins takes quite a different approach to the one he used in The Dead of Winter. The core difference is that the book is told mostly from the perspective of a new character, Victoria Dawes from England, who has had some supernatural trouble in her home country, trouble which has already caused the deaths of her parents. Now she travels all the way to the wild west looking for someone to help her, that someone being famous spook hunter Cora Oglesby, on the suggestion of James Townsend, a spook scholar of some note and a friend of Cora, from what we saw in The Dead of Winter. Victoria, or Vicky as Cora insists on calling her, is faced with getting Cora to return from retirement and help her. But as it turns out, she gets involved in a plot to kill Cora and must, by needs, help the hunter solve her problems before going back to England.

The change in character perspectives was striking, and I was none too happy with it since I love Cora as a character. However, in Victoria I found a much more sympathetic character. From the get go in The Dead of Winter we are presented with a protagonist who is supremely capable at what she does and is strong and experienced at the same time. But with Victoria, we are presented with a protagonist who is in over her head, is naive, clueless and inexperienced. She is also someone burning with a desire for vengeance against those who killed her parents and that’s her central motivation. Seeing her character grow over the course of the novel was a fun ride. There are some tropes involved in the process, easily likened to how Antonio Banderas’ character grows in The Mask of Zorro. By the end, she is well on her way to becoming a capable spook hunter herself.

I really wish that we had gotten to see a lot more of Cora from her own perspective, despite the fact that the scenes we do get are completely kick ass scenes, and not just in terms of action. Cora is by now a retired spook hunter and has finally opened that printing press she kept talking about to her husband Ben in The Dead of Winter. When not working, she is up to her usual tricks in the adjacent bar, drinking and gambling, and living the high life of a comfortable job and no one but herself to take care of. To put it simply, she is content with her life. Then Victoria arrives on the scene and while initially resistant, the old Cora soon returns, and we get the action heroine we loved in the first book. Lee Collins does an excellent job of portraying an “old” Cora, a story element he introduced in the first book, and one that contributes to Cora’s decision to retire from spook hunting. She is no longer as spry as she once was and this comes across quite a bit in the book, but never overwhelms any of the scenes. Lee has balanced that quite well.

As far as the villains are concerned, Lee has once again done a great job at presenting credible antagonists who are not cliches in any sense, much as he did with the vampire lord in the first book. One of the villains is directly related to the events of the first book, and the other is someone new and exciting, who makes for a very interesting read. We get to see flashback events from the second antagonist’s perspective at regular intervals throughout the book, which go a long way to explaining why the antagonist is, well, an antagonist. It is almost a heartbreaking story, just as heart-breaking as the novel’s climax. The characterisation of the villains was a bit thin at times, mostly due to the fact that we get to see a lot of the novel through Victoria and Cora’s perspectives (more from the former than the latter), but I enjoyed seeing things from the antagonists’ perspectives just as much as I did from the two protagonists’.

In terms of the pacing and the world-building, Lee Collins has hit a perfect balance once again. He explores the Indian (Native American) culture and mythology a fair bit this time, whereas the first book was concerned much more with vampires, and the shift in focus was really nice to see. If the book had had a higher page count, I have no doubt that Lee could have done a better job of showing off the culture, but I am happy with how things turned out. The focus is on the two protagonists at all times, and that focus was welcome.

So, to answer my questions about whether this is a better novel than the first, I would say that yes, it is. With only a few minor niggles, She Returns From War was one of my top reads of last month, and certainly one of the best publications from Angry Robot that I’ve read in the past 14 months, which is no small feat since there are loads of amazing books I’ve read from the publisher. It’s almost getting to be a thing with Angry Robot!

Rating: 9.5/10

More Lee Collins: The Dead of Winter.

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