Crazy Cat, also known as Lee, also known as Lily, is one of the toughest and baddest outlaws around, and she seems to be wanted everywhere she goes. Unfortunately, at this current stop, she finds that the marshal already recognizes her from the wanted posters. But she has one thing on her side: he’s a crooked marshal, brutal and violent and extremely hated by the townsfolk. So as it is with outlaws and crooked law men, there are some serious shoot-outs. If you like your Westerns dark and morally ambiguous, J.C. Loen’s EMBERS AT DAWN is plenty of both.
The protagonist of EMBERS AT DAWN is, quite frankly, a frustrating, brilliant and brilliantly frustrating character. In the few Westerns, or similar types of stories, that actually feature female outlaws, often the point of the story is this hidden sensitive side she has, or alternately what a cold and heartless she-devil she is. Lee is neither. While she does occasionally show her vulnerabilities in the story, it’s hardly the point of the narrative, and most of what she reveals in these moments is how little vulnerability she seems to feel. But she’s still a well-rounded character, seemingly at times so self-aware and at other times oblivious. She sort of falls in love, but not in a way that betrays her character.
Like a lot of historical fiction, EMBERS AT DAWN is meant to be an immersive experience, and generally the dialect of the book is one thing that really transports, with its Western-style mixture of roughness and elegance: “’Shut up, Stub. We best get this situation sorted and done with afore they come trying to torch up this place again.’ ‘Yous been saying so since afore Christmas. All I’ve heard is a lot of talk. I ain’t seen any doings,’ Cal said.” The first-person narration, strangely enough, doesn’t always match Lee’s dialect, but it often achieves a terrible poetry that sings out quite well: “Three strangers rode into town, trailing a fourth horse that had two lifeless bodies dangling about its flanks,” though more rarely it gets caught up in its own purpleness: “The sun kept rising, glowing through the branches, setting the dead tree alight with an incandescent hue.” But overall, the writing is good, more matching the quality of the former sentence than the latter.
EMBERS AT DAWN is a fairly earthy vision of the American Old West, never shying away from violence and vulgarity, but also not quite as nihilistic as it first seems.