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Review: Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

Wild West + Supernatural = apparently my cuppa tea.

Who knew?

This one had it all: an action-based plot with folklore-inspired monsters, a bit of gentle comedy and a heroine that I fell in love with from halfway through the first chapter. I adored her the minute she took offense to a surly bloke attempting to have his way with her. Literally.

“What is it you think you’re gonna do to me, mister?” […]
“Something nice. Something somebody probably done to you already. Your master or pappy, maybe.”
She pushed air out her nose like a bull. “Ain’t got a pappy. Or a master.”
“Then I guess nobody’ll mind, will they?” 
That was pretty much it for Nettie Lonesome. She spun on her heel and ran into the barn, right where he’d been pushing her to go. […] No, she snatched the sickle from the wall and span to face him under the hole in the roof. Starlight fell down on her ink-black braids and glinted off the parts of the curved blade that weren’t rusted up.
“I reckon I’d mind,” she said.

Nettie Lonesome is a slave, no two ways about it. Half black and half Injun, she is raised by two “parents” who treat her no kinder than the dirt beneath their boots. But one day she takes a sickle to the face of a vampire and everything changes. Her ability to sense and see supernatural creatures is triggered, giving her a new responsibility to keep them in check. And it’s not long before a vengeful ghost selects her for a deadly task.

For me, this story was all about Nettie Lonesome. She’s a headstrong and feisty woman (more at home in male clothing) who hasn’t received a day of education in her life but is mercilessly worldly. She had “decided long ago that there wasn’t a damn useful thing about being female” and throughout the story we watch her grow into her sexuality and establish her identity, not as a man or a woman, but simply as Nettie.

“Nettie didn’t feel much like a girl, but she didn’t feel much like a boy either. She just…was.”

Though she spends a bit of time confused by her identity, she always owns her decisions, never gives into any societal pressure, and just gives off some damn good vibes about the whole thing. Which is bloody awesome.

“What are you?”
Nettie’s one-eyed glare was flat, her patience gone. “I’m the feller that’s going to kill you.”
“You’re not a feller.”
“That’s not yours to decide.”

Though there’s a hint of Nettie being a bit of a Chosen One, a trope which grates my cheese something chronic, it’s something I’m willing to forgive for reasons I cannot say because spoilers. But I will tell you that she’s a begrudging hero, skilled with a blade and gifted with wits, but longs for a simple life. She has no choice but to go off fighting monsters, but she dreams of breaking horses and just wants to enjoy a life free from her past slavery. But she gets on with her mission, owns it as she does everything, and brings some often unintentional comedy along with her.

Whatever part of her that had feared Pap? That part was dead.
She had bigger things to fight.
“Hellfire, Dan.” She looked far across the prairie. First west. Then north. “I figure you’d better take me to the Rangers so I can get this destiny thing finished and get back to breaking horses.”

I loved her. I loved her fire, her Wild West language, her independence, her strength. I loved that she’s a 19th century feminist, I loved that she’s apologetically ugly and made it part of her identity. I loved how funny she was, how simple yet simultaneously wise her mind was. I loved that despite her traumatic past, her character and the ideals she brought forth were wonderfully positive.

“She was ugly, was all they’d told her. But she didn’t find them beautiful, so what did it matter?”

I read for Nettie, not the plot. Not that the plot was bad; it was fast-paced with lots of action and enough creepy monsters to keep me happy. Unfortunately, Westerns aren’t really my jam, and I didn’t have much of an interest in any other characters besides my wonderful Nettie. Maybe a passing interest in Coyote Dan but that’s pretty much it. And during the slightly lengthy chapters focusing on reflection and character interaction, there’s only so far my enjoyment of the characters’ Western dialogue and cowboyish antics will get me. Despite that, I cannot deny how well-written the whole thing was. Balanced, different, body-positive and most certainly entertaining. Wake of Vultures took me on an unexpectedly fun jaunt through 1870’s America and gave me a new name for my list of favourite literary characters. And you know what, I bet she’ll make yours, too.


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