There are fast-paced thrill-a-minute novels where the plot twists and wild action just. Keep. Coming. And then there are introspective books about someone searching for their identity and untangling deep issues of race, sexuality and gender. And then occasionally, you get a book that manages to do both. Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen is one such book, and it’s a goddamn keeper.
In Wake of Vultures, Nettie Lonesome is a young mixed-race girl who’s lived on a crappy little farm in the middle of nowhere for as long as she can remember. Her adoptive parents, Ma and Pa, are abusive drunks who treat her more or less like a slave. But then one day, Nettie gets attacked by a vampire—and she manages to kill it. After that, she can see supernatural monsters everywhere. She steals the vampire’s clothes, decides to pass as a man, and goes to work as a cattle wrangler, and then as a Texas Ranger, hunting down all the monsters.
That’s just a hint of all the wild action going on in this book, which manages to keep turning everything on its head every few pages without feeling rushed or illogical. Wake of Vultures was seriously the most fun reading experience I’ve had in a while, thanks in part to the fast pace but also the bonkers action.
Don’t believe me? Patrick Rothfuss also gave it five stars on Goodreads.
The thing that really sticks with me, a few days after reading Wake of Vultures, is the character of Nettie Lonesome. The book is written in tight third person, in a way that lets Nettie’s sarcastic sense of humor, her quick anger, and her soul-searching all come to the fore. No matter how wild things get in the book, with harpies or chupacabras or werewolves bursting out of all corners, Nettie remains an engaging and thrilling companion. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)
But meanwhile, even while this book is serving up supernatural action with humor and feels—in a way that rivals the best of Seanan McGuire and Mur Lafferty—it’s also delving into some pretty deep waters about identity. Nettie is the latest in a long, long line of women who dress in men’s clothing and pass as men for the sake of adventure, but over the course of the book, her male clothing becomes much more of an identity for her. And even as she starts to think of herself as a man (and Bowen told us that the second book will use the male pronoun for Nettie) she also struggles with her own internalized misogyny, based on her horrendous upbringing.
And meanwhile, Nettie can’t disguise the color of her skin, and she has an equal amount of internalized racism, that feels very convincingly portrayed without getting too heavy-handed. As someone with both African and Native American roots, Nettie feels alienated from her own cultures and only knows what the horrendous Ma and Pa taught her—and even when everybody thinks she’s a man, she has to work twice as hard to be accepted among the Rangers.
Add to that the fact that Nettie is attracted to both men and women, and you’ve got yourself one heck of an unconventional protagonist—one whom mainstream publishers might not have even touched a decade ago.
I can’t fully judge whether Bowen, who is white, did a good job with her protagonist of color—she talks about wrestling with that issue in this Mary Sue essay. But I can attest that Nettie feels very real and fleshed-out, and her identity crisis feels lived-in and emotionally complex. She never wallows in self-loathing or misery for very long, but there’s a real feeling of heartbreak and confusion behind her struggles to accept and understand herself (and other people). Nettie’s journey never feels easy, and Bowen never seems to be taking cheap shortcuts.
At this point, some people may be thinking that Wake of Vultures is some kind of lecture about identity politics—to which, first of all, what would be wrong with that? A lecture about identity politics featuring chupacabras and werewolves sounds like kind of a fun evening. But secondly, returning to what I said at the start of this review, the miracle of Wake of Vultures is that it grapples with a lot of complicated stuff about personal identity, while also moving at a crazy fast pace and serving up more fun gunplay, fight scenes, slugfests, vampire bordellos, cattle rustlers and wild stunts than your average action movie. At no point does this book slam on the brakes to explain stuff to you that you can figure out on your own, and Nettie is a lively enough POV character that she can think about stuff and do stuff at the same time.
The one problem I have with the book is that Nettie goes through some changes towards the end of the book that feel slightly as though they come out of nowhere—although that’s probably setup for the forthcoming sequel, so fair enough.
Wake of Vultures is the book that got me thinking about how interesting and exciting Weird West novels have gotten lately. (Read the interview I did with Bowen and three other authors in the genre!) Until I read this book, I—like Rothfuss—did not have a lot of interest in Westerns, between their horrible “Manifest Destiny” baggage and their worn-out gunslinger tropes. But this book was enough to convince me that there’s still a lot of life left in the Old West.