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Friday, April 15, 2016


Author:  Lila Bowen (pseudonym for Delilah Dawson)
Plot Type:  Fantasy 
Ratings:  Violence7; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Orbit
          Wake of Vultures (e-book, audio, and hardcover10/2015; paperback9/2016)
          Conspiracy of Ravens (e-book and hardcover10/2016)


     If you are as sick as I am of the cookie-cutter über-alpha heroes and spunky-but-submissive heroines of urban fantasy—all gorgeous, leather-clad, bad-ass look-alikes—you'll probably welcome this fresh and compelling series as much as I do. Bowen sets the series in a weird and fantastical American Old West in the 1870s and describes it as Lonesome Dove meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Already I'm fascinated. (NOTE: In my humble opinion, Lonesome Dove is the best TV mini-series ever televised as well as being one of my top-ten favorite novels of all time)

     On Bowen's web site, she states, "I believe in this story enough to offend people and risk failure, and that’s enormously empowering. If you recognize that the world is full of heroes who don’t fit into neat, normal little boxes, you’ll dig it. If you love Westerns but wish women in that era could be more than slaves and whores, you’ll dig it. If you’ve ever had someone look at you and tell you that you don’t deserve the destiny you crave because of what you look like or how you dress or who you love, and you’ve wanted to flip a table on them and ride off into the sunset, you’ll dig it. Wake of Vultures is all about bucking the binary.”

     The series is set in an alternate Old West called the Durango Territory, which basically includes present-day Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado. According to the map at the beginning of the book, there are a handful of Indian villages and white settlements scattered across this arid land. There are also areas marked with spooky labels like minotaur herds, giant Gila monsters, javelina tribes, chupacabra territory, and sand wyrms—among others. So, from the very beginning we know that this is a tale of humans co-habitating with monsters of all kinds. But in this mythology, humans see only the human or normal animal forms of the supernatural beasties until they actually kill one of them. Then they are faced with the chilling reality that their world is filled with creatures with fangs, wings, and/or claws who hide their ferocity and carnivorous nature behind "normal" facades.

     In Bowen's Author's Note at the end of the first book, she explains how she came up with place names and tweaked history to create the fantasy elements of her mythology. Here, she explains her commitment to respecting diversity as she describes the series heroine, Nettie Lonesome. "She's written as a Black Indian, with her tribe most likely Comanche. The terms Injun and Indian have been used throughout the book not as a slur but as a reflection of the language of the time…Raised in the way she was, Nettie would've known no other way to refer to these people…When Nettie arrived in my imagination, fully formed and thoroughly, unapologetically herself, I was intimidated by the thought of writing a half-black, half-Comanche heroine raised in unspoken slavery who self-identifies as a man and is attracted to both men and women." The author goes on to say that people like Nettie have existed all through human history, but have been forced to hide their true selves "and play along with the laws and morality of their times." 
     Although Nettie's confusion about her sexuality runs as an undercurrent throughout the first book, it never detracts from Nettie's adventure-filled journey through the harsh world in which she finds herself. In fact, she first disguises herself as a man solely for her own personal safety and so that she can get a job as a wrangler on a nearby ranch. As a woman, she would have been expected to stay home and tend to the needs of her adoptive parents (aka slave owners) and would have suffered from the unwanted attentions of men who wanted her for their own base reasons. Nettie is a smart young woman, and she knows that becoming a man will keep her alive and free. But then, things get more complicated.

     Under her Delilah Dawson name, Bowen shook up the paranormal genre with her weirdly romantic steampunk series, BLUD. Click HERE to read my review of that series, and click HERE for a review of a BLUD novella in the Three Slices anthology. In a somewhat morbid, but humorous, twist, the wild western plains of THE SHADOW are overrun with tasty, but blood-thirsty, fanged jackrabbits who must be cousins of the ferocious, carnivorous bunnies of BLUD.

     Wake of Vultures won 4.5 stars as a Top Pick for RT Book Reviews as well as being selected as the best fantasy novel of 2015 in the RT Reviewers' Choice Awards. Click HERE to see all of RT's 2015 award winners. 

                        NOVEL 1:  Wake of Vultures                          
     A rich, dark fantasy of destiny, death, and the supernatural world hiding beneath the surface: Wake of Vultures is the first novel of the Shadow series and introduces Nettie Lonesome, who is much more than she seems. 

     Nettie lives in a land of hard people and hard ground dusted with sand. She’s a half-breed who dresses like a boy, raised by folks who don’t call her a slave but use her like one. She knows of nothing else. That is, until the day a stranger attacks her. When nothing, not even a sickle to the eye can stop him, Nettie stabs him through the heart with a chunk of wood, and he turns into black sand. And just like that, Nettie can "see." But her new-found sight is a blessing and a curse. Even if she doesn’t understand what’s under her own skin, she can sense what everyone else is hiding—at least physically. The world is full of evil, and now she knows the source of all the sand in the desert. Haunted by the spirits, Nettie has no choice but to set out on a quest that might lead her to her true kin…if the monsters along the way don’t kill her first. 

    Monsters, magic and the supernatural combine in this epic debut where a young woman must defeat the evil hiding beneath the surface. Nettie Lonesome dreams of a better life than toiling as a slave in the sandy desert. But late one night, a stranger attacks her—and Nettie wins more than the fight. 

     Now she's got everything she ever wanted: friends, a good horse, and a better gun. But if she can't kill the thing haunting her nightmares and stealing children across the prairie, she'll lose it all—and never find out what happened to her real family. The Shadow will begin a journey that leads her to the darkest chambers of the heart—if only she can survive.


     As the first novel opens, Nettie is living a slave-like existence on a run-down ranch in an isolated town named Gloomy Bluebird, named after the single bluebird first seen (and shot down) by one of the earliest residents. (The town's name is just one of the Lonesome Dove Easter eggs scattered throughout this novel.) Nettie's parents/owners found her abandoned in the desert when she was an infant, and she has been under their abusive control ever since. Conditions are primitive; the weather is harsh; and the monsters are always hovering (although the white settlers blame the frequent violent deaths on the Indians, and the Indians blame them on the Durango Rangers).

     The story takes place over a period of about two weeks during which Nettie runs away from home and becomes a wrangler and bronc-buster at a neighboring ranch, taken under the wing of a kindly cowboy named Monty who has a lot of the qualities of Gus in Lonesome Dove. One day, the cowboys rescue an Indian woman they find screaming in the desert. She keeps muttering that the Pia Mupitsi (aka Big Cannibal Owl, a cautionary tale told to Comanche children) came and took her child and all of the other children of her village. Before dying, the woman warns Nettie that she must hunt down and kill the Cannibal Owl before the next new moon. If Nettie fails to do this, the woman and her sleek, black water horse (a kelpie) will haunt her for the rest her life.

     Circumstances soon force Nettie to flee from the ranch, so she follows the ghost of the Indian woman, who appears periodically, always pointing west. As Nettie makes her westward journey to her inevitable showdown with the Cannibal Owl, she meets up with a pair of coyote shape shifters, a company of rangers, a man from her past, and quite a few monsters, including a wake of harpies and a pack of werewolves (who, in this mythology, are definitely NOT the usual tough-but-sexy men/shifters with hearts of gold that we find in most paranormal novels). Soon, Nettie's mantra becomes, "I'm a Durango Ranger. I kill what needs to die."

     As Nettie learns how to fight and kill the monsters, she must also deal with her personal issues. She wants to know more about her real parents and why they left her to die in the desert. She also has to figure out exactly who she is. Is she Nettie Lonesome, a one-time slave, or is she Ranger Rhett Hennessy, the new name she made up when she joined the rangers? Is she a woman who truly wants to be a man, or is her male identity just a convenient disguise? Why do three different people (one woman and two men, all in their late teens or early twenties) give her strange feelings when she is near any one of them, making "all sorts of inside organs flip around like a grasshopper in a skillet" and causing her to her tremble "like a new colt"? Where did she get the new powers that develop unexpectedly near the end of the book? Nettie/Rhett has a lot to figure out about her future life, but by the end, she's sure that she has left her beaten-down slave identity far behind: "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, And somehow, knowing that nothing was permanent or real made it easier for Nettie to slip into her own skin. For the first time, she stopped trying to be something else and accepted that what she was was as real and fine as what anybody else was."

     Although the "be who you want to be" theme gets a bit preachy at times, the author wraps it up in such a great story that I'm willing to give that a pass. Nettie is such a great character—a doggedly pragmatic young woman who grapples with gender issues in a most realistic manner while learning to defend herself and find a way to live free in a gritty, hard-bitten, unforgiving world. Bowen says that she based the landscape of Durango on the terrain photographed so beautifully in the TV mini-series, Lonesome Dove, and she captures those hot, barren, treeless plains perfectly. This is a solid beginning to—potentially—a great series. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Wake of Vultures by clicking on the cover art or the "Liston" icon on the novel's page. Click HERE to read the 4.5-star review of this novel in RT Book Reviews.

                        NOVEL 2:  Conspiracy of Ravens                          
     Conspiracy of Ravens continues the exciting journey begun in Wake of Vultures as Nettie Lonesome discovers that she, and the world, are more than what they seem. Monsters, magic and the supernatural combine in this sequel to Wake of Vultures, in which a young woman must defeat the evil hiding beneath the surface.

     Nettie Lonesome made a leap—not knowing what she'd become. But now the destiny of the Shadow is calling. A powerful alchemist is leaving a trail of dead across the prairie. And the Shadow must face the ultimate challenge: side with her friends and the badge on her chest or take off alone on the dangerous mission pulling her inexorably toward the fight of her life.

     When it comes to monsters and men, the world isn't black and white. What good are two wings and a gun when your enemy can command a conspiracy of ravens? 

I will upload my review of Conspiracy of Ravens to this space on or near the publishing date of this novel.

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