Review: ‘Wake of Vultures’ by Lila Bowen

Wake of Vultures

A rich, dark fantasy of destiny, death, and the supernatural world hiding beneath the surface.

Nettie Lonesome 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 newfound 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 to her true kin… if the monsters along the way don’t kill her first.

A historical fantasy about a half Native American, half African American bisexual girl who dresses like a man? This is the book I didn’t know I needed till I had it. Delilah S. Dawson (writing here as Lila Bowen) is one of my favourite authors, and I confess that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if she hadn’t written it — not for any particular reason, just because I don’t usually read books set in the American Wild West (or a facsimile thereof). So Wake of Vultures would never have even crossed my radar.

And that would’ve been a tragedy, because Nettie Lonesome’s story is a cracking read. The action whisks you along, and it doesn’t get bogged down in self-reflection — though there is certainly a bit of that, as poor Nettie has received exactly no education and, as other characters keep telling her, has a lot to learn about people. Consequently, she is baffled by notions like bisexuality or why a woman would actually choose to wear skirts rather than pretending to be a man.

From my (admittedly white, non-American) perspective, Dawson/Bowen handled the issues of race and gender identity with tact. There’s no stereotyping — there are good and bad guys both white and “Injun” (as Nettie refers to them, given she was raised by whites; the phrase is something the author acknowledges is not PC these days but would have been accurate in the 1800s Texas that Durango is based off). Even the monsters have a range of good and bad types.

As far as the monsters go, if there’s a method to determining the ones we encounter then it isn’t made clear to Nettie — and therefore us — in this book what that is. There are vampires, harpies, werewolves, skinwalkers, the Cannibal Owl (a Native American bogeyman), dwarves and bludbunnies (a critter from Dawson’s steampunk series). I guess European-mythology creatures can emigrate just as easily as Europeans can!

I enjoyed the other characters, particularly Winifred — who is the first female Nettie really gets to know who is happy and proud to be female — and Sam Hennessey, one of her fellow Rangers. There is a hint of romance in the story, but if you only like your romance to include kissing scenes and heavy petting, you won’t find any of that here (the closest we come to a kissing scene actually made me cringe for poor Nettie and the other party). I actually liked that, though. Nettie is so confused by who she is and what she wants that if she’d jumped into the sack with someone it would’ve seemed very out of character.

I can’t wait for the next book in the series, Horde of Crows. The ending isn’t a cliffhanger per se, but it sure left me wanting more.

Five stars

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Review: ‘Cassandra’ by Kerry Greenwood

Cassandra

On Mount Olympus, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, yawned. Even perfection can become tedious. “My lord,” she called to Apollo, “Sun God and brother. Let us play a game with mortals — my power against yours.”

And so Cassandra, the golden-haired princess cursed with the gift of prophecy, and Diomenes, the Achean with the healing hands, become puppets of the gods. Their passions are thwarted, their loves betrayed, their gifts rendered useless for the sake of a wager between the immortals. Doomed, magnificent Troy is the stage, Cassandra and Diomenes the leading players in this compelling story of the city’s fall. Both have found love before, and lost it. Will they find each other in the light of the burning city?

And, if they do, can their love survive the machinations of malicious gods and men?

I originally bought this book — because of the name, obviously — about 15 years ago. Because I’ve been on an Ancient Greek kick lately, I decided to re-read it.

Both Cassandra and Diomenes are healers who’ve had close encounters with gods early on in their lives. Cassandra and her twin, Eleni, are given the gift of prophecy as small children, while Diomenes becomes a healer after his life is saved by Glaucus, healing priest of Asclepius. During his illness, Thanatos, god of death, blesses him.

Maybe these blessings are what made the two the target of Aphrodite and Apollo’s wager. The gist of the bet is that Aphrodite believes she can get the two together, while Apollo is determined to keep them apart. Posiedon and Athena weigh in, wanting to see Troy destroyed in the process (although Posiedon later changes his mind). The whole thing gets very messy, as you can imagine.

We don’t see much of the gods in the book, just in the occasional page of dialogue at the end of a chapter. Mostly, what we see is the poor mortals, struggling with the twists and turns their lives take. Both Cassandra and Diomenes find love elsewhere and lose it, but to me the greater tragedy was the fall of Troy itself. Compared to the culture of the Acheans (Greeks), Troy as Greenwood writes it was a beacon of progress and good behaviour, where women were given equal rights and the gods were offered sacrifices of herbs or precious goods rather than blood. Greenwood takes some liberties with the original myth, so the ending isn’t quite as horrific as it could have been — there is at least a little bit of hope there.

One thing I’d forgotten between readings is just how much sex there is in this book, both hetero and homosexual. For the most part that’s fine with me, although fair warning: if you want a “clean” read this isn’t it. 😉 Also, during some of the war scenes the inevitable rape and treatment of captured women as slaves is quite confronting. A lot of it happens “off camera” but still, Greenwood doesn’t pull any punches.

The other thing that’s quite chilling about this retelling of Troy is Greenwood’s portrayal of Achilles: he is an insane psychopath, far and away the worst of the Greeks. It particularly struck me given I just read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller not long ago, which is a much kinder portrayal. It’s interesting to see such different takes on the same character.

Cassandra is the second book in a trilogy, but stands alone; I’ve never read the other two. If you like gritty, “realistic” historical fantasy, this may be the book for you.

Four-and-a-half stars