I made a conscious policy earlier this year to read more widely. This commitment included reading more work by new authors and getting to grips with some classics (I still haven’t got round to reading my compendium of John Steinbeck novels, but have managed to check out John Fowles and Shirley Jackson.) In addition, I wanted to read lots more by female authors, particularly in my genres of horror and dark fantasy. I figured I shouldn’t be automatically gravitating to male writers (for whatever reason, conscious or unconscious) and therefore excluding a vast wedge of talent. I’d like to be saying that I’d be denying myself 50% of horror/dark fiction, but as we all know, women authors are vastly under-represented. So, putting my head above the parapet and setting myself up for accusations of tokenism, here comes my review.
Lila Bowen, the author of WOV came to my attention via Chuck Wendig’s site when she did a guest blog there. A Chuck Wendig recommendation is a powerful endorsement as he doesn’t put forward these authors lightly. The decision to read her book was further re-inforced when I saw she was running a writing course on world-building as part of Litreactor’s prestigious program. So I followed my usual route of checking out her website and downloading an ebook sample from Amazon. I was favourably impressed by both, particularly as she came across as an author who ‘tells the truth truer’ (Tom Spanbauer) and produces her work against a backdrop of personal challenges which she bares honestly in her bio. The version I bought was the paperback.
Anyhow, on to the book. Firstly, the main character is instantly intriguing and unique. Her name is Nettie Lonesome and from the very start she is portrayed as ‘different’. The character has many layers, however and just how different gets revealed very gradually. First of all she is an adopted orphan, brought up by two abusive parents, Secondly, although she was born a mixed race girl, she identifies with the male worldview and disposition. We think that perhaps she is a ‘tom-boy’ of sorts, but as the story unfolds we see Bowen describe her discovery of just who or what she is to reveal an extremely complex character. Unsure of her own sexuality or whether she should allow her façade of a young male wrangler to be revealed, she attempts to find her freedom through signing on at the ranch bordering on her parent’s property. After an encounter with a lone vampire and through confrontations with a host of other monsters this bizarre world throws at her, Nettie has to struggle with the greatest challenge of all – discovering who she is.
The world-building/setting in WOV is superb and comes complete with the obligatory fantasy map at the start. You’d expect this from an author who runs courses on the stuff, after all; but Bowen has clearly spent a lot of time creating a cross between the wild-west and a gothic horror film. She admits to being a bit fuzzy on some aspects of the western authenticity, but, hey, when you’re creating alternative realms, you’re allowed a bit of latitude. Besides, the story-telling is so absorbing, it’s not like you’d want to dig out your encyclopaedia to check whether the cowpokes were using the correct revolvers for the supposed time period. That said, Bowen’s knowledge of horses and wrangler culture obviously spring from her own passion for all things equine.
Even the names are unique, yet carry the feel of somewhere real. Nettie’s hometown is ‘Gloomy Bluebird,’ which seems to evoke that believable mix of established folklore and other-worldliness. The whole region is called ‘Durango’ which sounds like it could have been a county in some little known state. Overall, there is cohesiveness about the world that is suggestive of Tolkein, where everything from places and people to culture are believable, albeit fantastical.
This is a work of dark fiction, but not extreme in nature. There are, to this reader anyway, some familiar monsters and some new ones based on lesser known and folk tales (particularly Native American.) These are introduced in subtle ways, so that the reader isn’t turned off early on with clumsy naming popular beasts. So, the first monster Nettie encounters is revealed later as a vampire, but in the scene itself is simply described from Nettie’s point of view as a horrific, almost indestructible fiend. Harpies and shape-shifters appear later, along with spirits of the dead . There will always be a niche in these popular tropes for those authors who have imagination and don’t slip into melodrama. Chupacabra was one monster I hadn’t heard of before – some kind of lizard creature – and of course the main antagonist is the ‘Cannibal Owl,’ a wonderfully realized creation.
Bowen uses a third person narrative, but with the voice of a simple denizen from this world. The colloquial style makes for easy reading and putting the reader in the scene from the get-go. This is just one masterful aspect of Bowen’s writing which includes tight descriptions, marvelously active verbs and original descriptions that immerse the reader in the story she has woven.
When it comes to fantasy books, some stories leave the reader disappointed at the conclusion as there are so many ways that incredible feats of strength, special powers or a cavalry charge can be called upon to save the day. The climax of Bowen’s book avoids these pitfalls and left me satisfied with an ending worthy of the protagonist she had created.
Chuck Wendig describes Wake of Vultures as a book that doesn’t just fly, but soars. I have to agree with him and the way is certainly paved for a follow up book in the future. Get yourself a copy soon, you won’t be disappointed with your purchase.