Here’s the thing about Lila Bowen’s Conspiracy of Ravens, the second book in her YA western fantasy Shadow series: it’s frakking great. You can stop reading right now. Go to your local library or independent bookstore, pick up a copy, devour it whole hog, and thank me later. But if, for whatever reason, you need more convincing, hopefully what follows will do the job.
Some spoilers ahead for Wake of Vultures, book 1 in the series.
Rhett Hennessey is a teenage shapeshifting Texas Ranger and part-time cowboy. When we first met him in Wake of Vultures, he was a slave if not on paper than in practice. Back then she thought of herself as a lowly girl named Nettie Lonesome, but after the eye-opening experiences in the first book Nettie became Rhett in every way that counts. As Conspiracy of Ravens opens, Rhett is just beginning to explore his male identity physically, psychologically, and romantically. Although he’s still figuring out how to be the Shadow – a powerful, magical being who helps the helpless – the mantle pulls him toward his destiny, often kicking and screaming. This time ‘round Rhett must rescue a bunch of mystical laborers enslaved by a sinister railroad boss named Mr. Trevisian. Trevisian is chopping off bits and pieces from the shapeshifters for unknown reasons while also using the workers to lay his own private tracks clear across the West to Calafia.
A young Irish lad named Earl O’Bannon encounters Rhett in the desert, both in their shifting forms: Earl as a donkey, Rhett as a massive, bloodthirsty, vulture-like bird. Earl sets Rhett on his collision course with Trevisian, but before the final boss fight Rhett and his friends – fellow Ranger Sam and Coyote Dan and his sister Winifred – take on pissed off dwarves, manipulative gods, cruel witches, sketchy Rangers, and shapeshifters the likes of which Rhett has never seen before. If he is to survive, Rhett must rely on his wits as much as his fists, but neither may be enough to defeat wicked Trevisian.
Lila Bowen, nom de plume of Delilah S. Dawson, is one of my favorite contemporary authors, so anything she releases sets me in a tizzy. I’d never read anything like Wake of Vultures, and it was everything I’d ever wanted, a Weird West YA story starring a half-Black, half-Native American trans character and secondaries who are people of color, women, queer, and/or disabled. Conspiracy of Ravens has doubled down on the diversity, adding characters who are openly lesbian or bisexual, and of a dizzying array of races and ethnicities.
Trigger warning for a bit of transphobia, but the negativity is framed against the perpetrator not Rhett. He isn’t reduced to having to prove that he’s “normal” or defend his identity; he simply is who he is, and for the most part everyone is pretty cool with it. Think of it this way: if you lived in a world where unicorns and sasquatches wandered around and half the people you meet were shapeshifters, why would someone shifting their sexual or gender identity make much of a difference? Of course there are plenty of racists and sexists, but again, the fault is always with them, never the victim, and not only are they always bad guys but they also always get their comeuppance. As a queer woman of color, it’s so refreshing to read something where the “-ists” are abnormal and the minorities normal. Even more delightful that it’s in young adult fiction, a genre often exceedingly cis-het and white.
YA also tends to be heavy on the love triangles. While Bowen doesn’t shy away from romance, here the triangle – quadrangle by the end – actually serves a purpose. Instead of grafting romance on as a lazy way to add dramatic tension, Bowen uses it deliberately as a means by which Rhett comes to better understand his new self as well as the plights and positions of women of color in the West. I’m thinking of one scene in particular where Rhett and Winifred, a non-straight Native American young woman, argue about a difficult encounter they had with a racist, sexist white man. Rhett hates that the white man called him “boy” and treated him like a slave belonging to Sam, a white Ranger about Rhett’s age, while Winifred’s anger goes into more intersectional territory:
“You he saw as someone’s servant, but me…he didn’t even see. Not a word, all night. So which is worse? Being seen as lesser or not being seen at all?”
He shook his head. “I got experience with both sides of that coin, don’t forget.”
“But you took something more for yourself. Shed your old skin like a butterfly’s cocoon. You decided which side the coin would land on. And I’m stuck here, a woman and an Injun and a cripple […] I have anger, too, and I get tired of feigning politeness […] I tire of being overlooked completely. Of not being seen when I wish to be seen.”
Winifred uses harsh terms to describe herself, but they’re the words white abled people would force upon her, not her preferred descriptives. Rhett as Nettie had her own terrible experiences being perceived as a woman worth nothing and who existed only for white exploitation, but Winifred is also right that when Nettie became Rhett he got to remove a key aspect of that exploitation from his presentation. Winifred could dress like a man to better protect herself – as Cora does in the railroad camp – but that would require her to be something she’s not just as Rhett hated having to be Nettie. Cora makes a choice to don men’s clothing while maintaining her femininity, but for Winifred to do the same would mean having to sacrifice her identity. She wants to be seen as a woman and wants to express her femininity in traditionally girly ways. Anything else would be a betrayal of her identity. This is tricky stuff Bowen is digging into, but I love that not only does she tackle it but she does it well and woke.
As a young adult librarian, I can tell you from experience that it’s ridiculously hard to find well-written, interesting YA books featuring people of color portraying various facets of the queer, gender, and disabled pantheons. Bowen’s Shadow series is all that and more.
Let me emphasize the “well-written” bit. Conspiracy of Ravens is a cracking good read. The characters are unique, deeply layered, and intriguing. The subplots are curious and exciting and fold neatly into the main arc. And the Big Bad is frightening yet realistic. Trevisian is the kind of character that could only exist in a fantasy novel, but he’s also not cartoonishly evil. Every woman has met a man like him. He looks at you like you’re less than an animal, a thing to be taken apart and to take advantage of, to be used and abused until there’s nothing left. Keeping Trevisian realistic grounds the fantasy tale and blocks the final confrontation from jumping the shark. Bowen knows what she’s doing. She has a firm grasp on the craft of writing, and the Shadow series is hands down her best work to date.
Conspiracy of Ravens is available now from Orbit.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.