Dead Man’s Hand by David Nix

Gus had seen such men before and during the war, on both sides of the fight. Men who lusted for blood as they would for a woman. Men of violence for whom abusive power was not enough. Men who would drive the lash long after the victim had fallen insensible or died… Yes, he’d seen such men, and knew the boasting gunmen were cut from that same corrupt cloth. The only way to stop their kind was to meet brutality with brutality, force with force. The only way to silence them was to leave their lifeless husks for the vultures…”

– Dead Man’s Hand by David Nix

Although unfamiliar to me, the author of this month’s western, David Nix, has apparently written novels in other genres previously, but this is his first western, and it is a fun little western, with diverse supporting characters and a reluctant hero, a veteran of the American Civil War, who fought on both sides, a loner who keeps collecting friends as well as enemies.
This book is, I strongly suspect, to be the first in a series following these characters. (The supporting cast includes buffalo soldiers, recent immigrants from Europe, a biracial woman, and American Indians.) (It is described by the author and publisher as a “progressive historical western” – you may read more about that on the author’s site.) There is a bit of romantic subplot that develops but it doesn’t get in the way of the adventure.
The majority of this novel is essentially a prolonged chase, as the big bads endeavour to destroy a wagon train and the heroes get together and defend it.
I read this book over three days – it is more “high adventure” than “serious historic literature” – bad guys can’t shoot straight but the hero rarely misses – yet the author’s knowledge of the genre and of the landscape (mythic and actual) is evident and appreciated.
While I found the pace occasionally sagged, particularly towards the end of the book, for the most part the read is compelling, and it should be possible to enjoy this novel over five or seven hours. While there were a few times I found the writing style was “stumbling” a bit, and there’s a bit too much “telling” of inner thoughts for my personal preference, there are also moments where the writing really strides, with persuasive description, action and memorable imagery.
Over all, I find that David Nix’s first foray into published full-length westerns is most welcome, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future. I am giving this book 3.5 stars, although rounded down to three on rating sites. Thank you to NetGalley.com for arranging an advanced reader copy for me to review. This title is scheduled to be published on the 22nd. You might be able to pre-order here.

The western prairie was a whimsical creature, fickle and capricious. It could bury a woman in eight feet of drifting snow, wash her away with a surprise flood, blow sand into her eyes until they caked shut. But it could also bestow gifts, such as the grandeur of pure silence, the stretch of a horizon two day’s ride distant, lightning that forked across the sky between two corners of the map. On this night, it brought her voices.”

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