Four years after the horrific events in Leadville, a young woman from England, Victoria Dawes, sets into motion a series of events that will lead Cora and herself out into the New Mexico desert in pursuit of Anaba, a Navajo witch bent on taking revenge for the atrocities committed against her people.
In She Returns From War Lee Collins takes the reader back to the world he created in The Dead of Winter. We return to that book’s heroine Cora Ogelsby four years after the events recounted in it. This time however, the point-of-view character isn’t Cora, it is a young British lady called Victoria Dawes. After losing her parents to what appear to be large, black hounds of a supernatural nature, which attack them on the road one night, she swears vengeance and turns to Cora for help. Cora has gotten out of the business since the last book and has set up as a saloon keeper in Albuquerque. Needless to say, she isn’t too keen on helping Victoria out. Before Victoria can leave with her request unfulfilled, she’s drawn into a reckoning with not just the witch mentioned in the cover copy, but also with an adversary from Cora’s past; an adversary who gives Cora no choice but to get involved.
While surprising at first, I found Collins’ choice to switch principal narrators for She Returns From War an interesting one. Victoria is a completely different character than Cora and her narration is far less unreliable than Cora’s was in the previous book. It also allowed Collins to make choices narratively he wouldn’t have been able to make if he’d stuck with Cora’s point of view as the principal one. Despite the fact that Victoria encounters several characters of the previous book and one of the villains of that book makes a return performance, you can read this book without having read the previous one and understand everything. Surprisingly enough, Collins even succeeds in not spoiling the twist for The Dead of Winter, which means even those who jump into the series with this book, will be able to enjoy the previous one fresh.
Victoria is everything Cora is not: she’s young, she’s proper, she’s naive, and inexperienced. Like Cora, however, she’s brave, resourceful, and smart. The combination of the two is an entertaining one and it’s fun to see Cora put Vicky – as she insists on calling her, much to Victoria’s chagrin – through her paces and school her in the monster-hunting business. Victoria’s youthful tenacity is fabulous and while this tenacity doesn’t fade, it’s tempered by experience and learned caution, something which I appreciated. Victoria also lands herself in several problematic situations through stubbornness, despite being warned she’s putting herself in danger, and doesn’t always manage to get herself out. At the end of the novel, Victoria has not only matured tremendously, she’s also learned to be at peace with the death of her parents and has discovered the fact that she has some supernatural powers of her own. At the beginning of the book, Cora is similarly at peace with the events of the previous book and has settled down to run her saloon. For her Victoria’s arrival means an upheaval of her hard-won equilibrium, but by the end she’s recaptured it and is at peace with her life. Collins strikes a fine balance between Cora’s intractability, her desire to remain retired, and her reluctant and hard-won sympathy for Victoria. You get the sense that she likes Victoria almost in spite of herself.
She Returns From War is a story about dealing with the consequences of actions, either your own or other people’s. Anaba, the Navajo witch who is the main adversary in this book, is filled with vengeance due to the way her people have been treated by the US soldiers. While her anger is understandable, even justified, her reaction is not. Similarly, Cora has had to come to terms with her past and her own actions, but they come back to haunt her and she needs to put them to rest to protect the innocents – well, sort of innocents – around her. Victoria is drawn into this conflict set between people she doesn’t known instigated by people she doesn’t know all due to a vow of revenge. So beyond having to take responsibility for one’s actions, it’s also important to realise the path of vengeance is never a wise path to travel.
While the plot was less intricate this time around and beyond the exploration of Navajo supernatural traditions there wasn’t a huge amount of expanded world building, She Returns From War packs a more powerful emotional punch than The Dead of Winter did. Collins has avoided the sophomore slump and has completed this duology with a well-delivered finale. If you enjoyed The Dead of Winter, reading its sequel is a must, but even if unfamiliar with Collins’ debut novel, She Returns From War is a strong and gripping story. I look forward to discovering where Collins will go next, whether he returns to this universe or introduces us to a new one; it’s bound to be interesting.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.