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The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman

The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman
Book Name: The Cold Eye
Author: Laura Anne Gilman
Publisher(s): Saga Press
Formatt: Hardcover / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy Western
Release Date: January 10, 2017 (US) December 1, 2016 (UK)

The Cold Eye by Laura Anne Gilman is the sequel to Silver on the Road. Isobel, along with her mentor Gabriel, rides the Territory as the Devil’s Left Hand, serving as his eyes and ears, helping those who live by the Devil’s rules and punishing those who would violate those rules. Like the first book, Gilman explores a harsh and beautiful world populated by a colorful variety of characters. Like a good sequel, the plot thickens, the characters are more fully revealed, and a larger danger is hinted at. But, ultimately, the plot stumbles a bit, keeping The Cold Eye from making the leap from good to great.

If you didn’t read Silver on the Road, let me catch you up. Imagine a world where the US did not make the Louisiana Purchase. And instead of the French, that swath of territory west of the Mississippi River is controlled by the Devil. Not the pitchfork-carrying, horned beast some might picture. Instead, this Devil, the Boss, is a cigar-chomping, whiskey-drinking, card-dealing saloon runner who will make a bargain with you, giving you everything you could want and more, and expecting a lot in return. On her sixteenth birthday, Isobel asked to become his Left Hand without fully appreciating the duty, the sacrifices, the struggles that come with such a powerful position. She rides under the watchful eye of Gabriel, who has a secret bargain of his own with Boss.

The Cold Eye picks up right where the first book leaves off. In the northern frontier of the Territory, Isobel is called to a place rumbling with natural and magical disasters. A buffalo herd has been slaughtered. The land rumbles and quakes. And the land’s magic has been scraped clean. Not only must she figure out who is to blame, but she must also fight back against a powerful foe. What if this is the just the first move against the Devil’s Territory? Will Isobel learn what it means to be the Devil’s Left Hand? Will she learn what it means for her to be the Hand? And what will we find out about Gabriel and the bargain he made with the Boss?

I love Gilman’s world. Whereas Silver on the Road looked at the Spanish Protectorate to the Territory’s southwest, this book focuses on the East-West divide between the Territory and the United States. Whereas the first book pitted religion against magic, this book is more about magic and its absence. Their Territory is the Wild West—filled with dangerous creatures, powerful magicians, and magic in many forms (dark and light). The United States is more crowded, devoid of magic, and looking to expand—even if Jefferson’s America can’t quite appreciate just how much of the Territory’s legends are true.

Not only is the Territory a magical place, but it is also a hard place. It’s dangerous, requiring caution among its inhabitants. Fools die in the Territory. And so its inhabitants are restrained, quiet. Not so with the United Sates.

In addition to Gilman’s worldbuilding, I also thoroughly enjoyed watching her characters grow. Since she took to riding circuit, Isobel has become comfortable, even competent on the road. Perhaps more importantly, she’s realizing the consequences of her bargain. She may have rushed into it, thinking only of the power and respect of her new position (like someone who dreams of being an expert but doesn’t consider the hours of hard work required to get there). But now she is coming to understand its demands, its responsibilities. We also get a better sense of Gabriel’s past east of the Mississippi River—why he ran away, who he dreamed of becoming, the friends he made, why he couldn’t stay, and the long recovery he experienced upon his return. Unfortunately, the plot was a weak spot for me. I’m fine with a monster-of-the-week (book?) setup. Isobel uncovers some bad magic, fights it, and moves on. It’s a perfect framework for a series like this. And to a large extent, that’s what this book is. But it’s the execution of that strategy that bothered me.

Isobel has trouble identifying what it is she is fighting. She has trouble understanding what caused it, what kind of evil it is, and how to overcome it. But what’s worse is that she even has trouble describing it. If she doesn’t understand what’s going on, and if she can’t describe what’s going on, I found myself not really caring about what’s going on. Isobel goes into the final fight without a strategy, hoping to wing it, doing a job because it is her job. While I can respect her sense of duty, the climax is as vague as the lead up, making it less fulfilling than it should be.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked the book. I didn’t toss it across the room. And I’ll probably check out the next book in the series. Gilman does a lot of good things. She has a tremendous eye for describing the vast open spaces of the American West, and she shows readers that world through an atypical Western protagonist. But as Gilman moves into the next stage of her story, where the Devil and his Hand will fight a new kind of threat to the Territory, I’ll hope she will turn that eye for detail on the magic, the villain, and the resolution of the story.


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