Being the Devil’s Left Hand is not the easiest job that Isobel could have chosen, but she did choose it, fought for it, and has proven herself, so far, to be a solid choice to ride the Territory on the Boss’ behalf. Now that she has some miles done on her circuit, Isobel’s life as the Devil’s Left Hand continues. As before, her partner Gabriel, as per his own agreement with the Devil, continues her training. But even as Isobel is growing into the role, new dangers are arising, dangers that the two of them may not be equal to face. Dangers great enough perhaps to threaten even the Devil himself.
The Cold Eye is the second Devil’s West novel by Laura Anne Gilman, following Silver On the Road.
If Silver on the Road was a coming of age novel, with Isobel being mentored by Gabriel on what it means to walk the Territory, to engage with its denizens, human and otherwise, then The Cold Eye answers the question of what happens next. Isobel has grown into her abilities, into her responsibility and has had the first conflicts with those who would undermine the Boss’ territory. She is still young and new to the position, painfully aware of the breadth of what she does not know and has not experienced. It would have been easy to write more of the same, a continuation of the direct line of the first novel. With such a diverse and strange Weird West, it would have been an easy path to take.
In this second novel, instead, however, Gilman does something more challenging, putting her character through the wringer, and indeed the Territory itself. Gilman ups the stakes and the pressure on Isobel by upping the ante on the Territory, and on Isobel’s role within it. We get to see more of the Territory, a Weird West of spirits, dangerous magicians, the Boss himself. Silver on the Road was only the beginning of our seeing that Weird West in all of the author’s imagination. In this second novel, we get even more extraordinary vistas and landscapes both personal and geographical (including the Yellowstone Country!). More importantly, though, it is the pressures on that world, that west; the questions of the future of the West all come to a head on the career of Isobel as the Left Hand of the Devil.
How does Isobel deal with this ratcheting up of pressure on her? Gilman captures her fading innocence, her struggle to learn to understand and to grow her power, and how to wield the responsibility she has been given. She’s wielded that responsibility already, but it is in The Cold Eye that Isobel truly begins to understand the charge she has been given, the burden and office that she has claimed and must now fulfill under the increasing pressures upon her, and the Territory, from within and without.
As a result of these pressures, too, we learn much more about Gabriel, and how and why he originally came to Flood in the first novel. This depth of development of his story, his background and how he fits into the wider narrative of the world came as a welcome surprise. Where in the first novel he was the mysterious mentor who rode into Flood and rode out with Isobel, here we get a sense of the context of his life, and how it fits with the power to the East that is the young United States. Gilman does an excellent job in his own horns of dilemma of his loyalties, his promises, and his desires.
The novel continues to develop the themes laid out in the first novel, and extends them. Duty. Loyalty. The nature of mankind and their relationship to the land. The exercise of power, authority and responsibility. Coming of age. The myth and forging of the West as the Frontier. The themes, like the spirits, lurk underneath the story and words of the text, rarely surfacing so broadly and directly as to overwhelm the to-the-author much more interesting worldbuilding and character development that suffices the pages.
With The Cold Eye, Laura Anne Gilman magnificently continues to forge her own version of a Western, American myth of the very early days of a West that wasn’t, but, perhaps reading both Silver on the Road, and The Cold Eye, I wish it might have been. The ending of the novel promises even more coming from Isobel, Gabriel, and the threats to them and the Territory. I never really considered myself a fan of Weird West fantasy. It appears it took the writing of Laura Anne Gilman and her characters to get me to change my mind. I daresay if you are a fan of Weird Westerns, you should already be reading Laura Anne Gilman. And if you are not, the Devil’s West novels may change your mind, too.