Cold West by Clayton Snyder: A Review
The Weird West has never been so grim or bloody brilliant.
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When I picked up Cold West, Clayton Snyder’s grimdark fantasy Western – an example of the Weird West genre if you will – I had no idea what to expect. I knew vaguely of the author as an exponent of grimdark indie fantasy, somewhere on the endless list of authors on my teetering TBR. But I wish I’d known just how talented he is, because this dark, twisted, unexpected tale grabbed my face with all of its claws and refused to let go until I’d finally escaped its twisted yet soulful bloody embrace with considerably less flesh than I’d started out with. It’s violent, it’s sadistic, but it’s also subtly layered and poetic. It is really quite something.
The tale starts off simple. Will Cutter used to be a bounty hunter, but swapped guns for family when he met the love of his life Ginny. After she takes ill and dies, he takes another contract to feed his two young boys, but things, you’ll be surprised to hear, don’t quite work out and soon he’s on his own twisted path of revenge and semi-redemption.
So far, so classic Western. But this is a fantasy western, so throw in some magic as well, and gloriously strange dark magic at that. Will is a null, someone who can nullify the powers of other magic practitioners and use the power of something called the Empyrean to kill, while opening doorways into other dimensions from which, if you’re not careful, something nasty and very big might pop out to terminally ruin your day and the days of everyone in your town.
For a while though, that’s all the worldbuilding you get, which is, despite the sounds of it, one of the great plusses of this book. It creeps up on you. Slithers, in parts. What starts out as a simple tale of the West with some magic thrown in soon turns out to be, through judicious use of minimal but impactful world building, to be part of a grander battle for the soul of the world, with past battles and religious fanatics and all the stuff you might associate with a more traditional, chonkier fantasy. But by subverting the traditional “all word building all the time” of fantasy, once you finally realise how the world works, the book opens up whole new layers, while never giving you everything you want. It’s a fine balance, and Snyder absolutely nails it.
Tone wise, this is as grim as it gets. People die violent deaths. Gut shot, brains blown out, mauled my hideous monsters, and much worse. Wil does bad things to bad people, and bad things to people who aren’t that bad but made a poor choice. No-one is having a good time here in this bleak, nihilistic grim West, and it’s all described so vividly that you can’t look away.
But Snyder knows the secret of the best Grimdark, which is that the horrors throb harder when they’re contrasted with the soft, so he gives us painful, artfully crafted flashbacks of Wil’s time with his wife that kept the dark from his door. It’s these poignant sections which ready your heart to be broken all over again, and they are written just as sure-handedly as the twisted tales they separate.
Snyder also subverts expectations with his protagonist, who constantly leaves the reader second-guessing whether he is a man capable of redemption or seeking it out, or even a good man. Kindness to one character is balanced out by wanton selfishness elsewhere. At one point you think the book is heading towards some kind of heroic, redeeming arc, then Snyder pulls the rug out of you and takes you somewhere else instead. I’m not even sure how we are meant to perceive him to be honest; this novel demands a second and possibly third read to truly get the making of him.
But I am more than happy to read this again, because Snyder’s prose is… really something. Minimalist, lyrical, poetic. If fellow purveyor of the Weird West and indie fantasy author Sarah Chorn is known for her descriptive, powerful emotion, hitting you over the head with wave after wave of glorious figurative expression, then Snyder is the opposite: the sentences slither along until one unexpected line delivery or poetic expression of the soul stings you in the back, rattlesnake style. It borders on the literary at time, prose so well-written that I reread certain sections twice or even three times, enjoying them and poring over their meaning.
Another bonus is the horror in this book. Feverish, dreamlike, surreal horror. At one point, in a demonic wasteland, spiders trot along with human faces, bawling out random religious phrases. Snyder raises the creepy feeling with an imaginative use of structure too; as well as flashbacks of Cutter’s wife, we get a series of horrific tales interspersed throughout the book: a condemned man’s horrifying encounter with an antlered demon being particularly wild and memorable. It all adds up to a feeling of insipid dread and unreality, which gets increasingly heightened the closer we get to the gloriously dark and purposely confusing climax.
Cold West is simply astonishingly: a fantastically-written horror show of a tale with subversive, perfect world building and a whole cave system of layered meaning that demands a re-read, a fair ask for such a short book. While I go check out what other poetic horrors Snyder has in store for me, I beg you to read this and try and climb out of the same dark pit I fell into it. Good luck.