Thursday, January 18, 2024

Review: Cold as Hell by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle

Books with supernatural characters, like werewolves and vampires, tend not to make the top of my reading list. Sure, I'm down for the occasional zombie apocalypse, but I've never been into storylines packed with mythical monsters. So I was more than a little surprised when I found myself thoroughly engrossed in Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle's Cold as Hell, a book that squarely falls into this genre.

Cold as Hell delivers in a few different ways. First of all, I'm loving the historic Wild West setting. It's like I'm getting a side order of historical fiction with my fantasy plotline. And then there's the well-balanced main character: James Crowley. Sure, Crowley is (or rather, was?) an outlaw bastard, but he's also kind, thoughtful, inventive, and honorable. Bruno and Castle have created a main character that I can proudly root for, and one that I can learn a thing or two from.

The book includes just enough philosophical musings on topics like free will and the struggle between good and evil to be interesting, without getting bogged down in minutiae. I think the book navigates issues of racial and religious diversity reasonably well. On one hand, the majority of the secondary characters fit predictable stereotypes: from cruel and indifferent outlaws, to full of themselves sheriffs, to a cryptic-talking Native American sage. Some of these tropes are tired, others may be downright offensive. Yet, the authors have endowed Crowley with a degree of self-awareness that lets him navigate his world with something approaching nuance. All this is to say that Crowley comes across as relatively enlightened, and my modern sensibilities appreciate this.

The book has the additional challenge of needing to balance religious diversity along with racial diversity. The primary premise of the book hinges on the existence of an old-school biblical God. And yet Bruno and Castle found a way to make space for Native American faith traditions, allowing them to exist simultaneously and authentically.

But what really makes the book work is its voice. And I don't mean the tone of the text; I'm talking about the actual voice of the narrator who read the book to me. Roger Clark is the actor who voices Crowley in the audio version of the book, and his performance is brilliant. Clark's distinctive western drawl brings Crowley to life in a way that's hard to appreciate until you've heard it.

My only complaint with Cold as Hell is that by the end, it started to get tedious. I appreciate the detailed account of every stage of Crowley's adventure, but at some point, I was like, man, this is just a bit much. Still, that's a minor complaint and I'm eager to see where the next book takes me.

Bottom line: Cold as Hell is a fun read. After recently tackling weightier topics, I didn't realize how much I needed a good old-fashioned western shoot 'em up. Throw in the fantasy element and you've got a clever "page-turner" I couldn't put down.

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