Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen. ★★★1/2
Trigger warning: rape
Wake of Vultures is a fantasy Western novel. I found it a mixed bag. Basically, I found the thematic content far more interesting than the plot itself.
Nettie Lonesome is a mixed race sixteen year old working for people who treat her like a slave, even if they don’t call her one. She dreams of getting out, but nothing in her life looks like it’ll change until she gets attacked by a stranger. When she stabs him with a piece of wood in self defense, he… crumbles into sand? Soon Nettie learns that she’s gained the sight, and she starts encountering weird creatures out of myths and folklore everywhere. To add to everything, an dying woman binds her to go seek out and kill the monster that’s been killing local children.
The plot of Wake of Vultures is incredibly episodic, with Nettie encountering different varieties of monsters. It reminds me of the beginnings of first season Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I actually watched, before I got bored and quit. Episodic monster killing just isn’t my thing. Additionally, the monsters all felt incredibly random, vampires, chupacabras, and harpies for instance. They don’t feel like they fit in the same book. Chupacabras make sense for a setting based on Texas, and I guess vampires get around. But harpies? Did they immigrate from Greece or something?
Besides from the monsters, there wasn’t any other noticeable fantasy elements to Wake of Vultures. I think the randomness of the monsters is an indication of the book’s weak world building. You can have a lot of completely different monsters in the same book, but you have to integrate them somehow. Wake of Vultures never did, and it didn’t make up for it with a strong sense of place.
“The world was not a place of black and white, night and day. It was shades of gray and shadows, dusk and dawn, in-between moments and shifting sands.”
A strong theme of Wake of Vultures is questioning and dismantling societal binaries. Nettie doesn’t fit easily into the boxes that society likes to make. She’s biracial – half black and half Native American and bisexual. She also questions gender throughout the book. She wears men’s clothes and is disguised as a man for most of the book. She doesn’t really identify as a girl, but over the course of the story realizes that there’s more possibilities.
“Nettie didn’t feel much like a girl, but she didn’t feel much like a boy, either. She just… was.”
In sum, Wake of Vulture has a lackluster plot but one of the most interesting explorations of gender that I’ve ever seen from a fantasy novel. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if you have a particular interest in these themes or a genderqueer biracial protagonist who kills monsters, you’ll probably enjoy the book.