If ever there was a fictional character in need of a vacation getaway, it’s Rhett Walker from Lila Bowen’s Shadow series. The poor boy is knee deep in his destiny of killing what needs killing and saving what needs saving, but instead of circumstances improving they only just keep getting worse. The joys of pregnancy, blossoming romances, and honest heart-to-hearts are soured by heartbreak, loss, and terrible deaths. Good thing, then, that Bowen is so talented that she can turn tragedy and turmoil into a damn good tale.
As Wake of Vultures opens, Nettie Lonesome, a half-Black, half-Indigenous slave girl, escapes her abusive white foster parents and runs smack dab into her destiny. She joins up with the Rangers—a sort of wild west police force that kills monsters—and there Nettie sheds his old identity and becomes the man he always knew he was. As Rhett takes on the baby-eating Cannibal Owl, he grows into his other new role, that of the Shadow, a mantle given to the Chosen One who protects the helpless.
By A Conspiracy of Ravens, Rhett and company—including a coyote ‘shifter named Dan, his sister Winifred who is cursed to die nine times, and the handsome Ranger Sam Hennessy—are joined by a petulant Irish immigrant, Earl, who turns into a donkey. With the help of a shapeshifting Chinese dragon called Cora, Rhett goes after a killer necromancer, Trevisian, who is stealing magic from monsters forced to labor on his railroad line. In the third novel of the series, Malice of Crows, Rhett, Sam, Dan, Winifred, Earl, and Cora chase Trevisian, who happens to be possessing Cora’s little sister, across the prairie to end his wicked ways once and for all.
That recap is about as bare bones and spoiler free as I can get, but it doesn’t even begin to cover the bonkers stuff that goes down. The series is chockablock with gruff dwarves, giant scorpions, man-eating Gila monsters, body-swapping magicians, unicorns, Gorgons, a whole passel of different kinds of animal shapeshifters, and so much more. Bowen hits the gas and rarely lets up. The action piles up, increasing in intensity and frequency as the story progresses. And the moments of quiet respite only add to the pace—the more sweetness and romance seem like they’re going to last, the harder the final hit will be.
Rollicking adventures with magical beings share the page with encounters with a system not that dissimilar from ours that is built on racism, sexism, and ableism. Bowen explores the ills of colonialism and how those trapped under its heel fight back. The Shadow series isn’t just about a teen trans boy battling monsters, but about him taking on bigotry and prejudice, both from those who would subjugate him and from the internalized -isms molded into him from a lifetime of oppression. As Rhett repeatedly learns, humans can be monstrous and monsters can be humane. It’s not what you are but how you treat those weaker than you, and Rhett will not tolerate abuse from anyone.
Speaking of identities, if you’re like me and prefer your entertainment inclusive and full of intersectional representation, the Shadow series is a must-read. Out of the main crew of Rhett, Dan, Winifred, Sam, Earl, and Cora, only one character is straight and only two are white. Three are bi, pan, or poly, one is trans, another is gay, yet another ace and/or aro, and two have disabilities. Bowen doesn’t tokenize, and she steers far clear of stereotypes (except when the characters confront and disprove them). Even when our heroes misstep (because they live in a world lacking a solid framework of cultural sensitivity and acceptance of different identities), they discuss the error from a standpoint of mutual respect, apologize for causing harm, and do better in the future.
Bowen writes solid action set pieces, but characters are her forte. Her characters are richly complex and sparkle with charm, energy, and detail. Even the Big Bads are fascinating in their wickedness. No matter how evil they are, Bowen grounds them with motivations true to their personalities and backstories. Dovey, the teen girl lead from her woefully underrated Servants of the Storm—written under her real name, Delilah S. Dawson—is my favorite of all her characters, but Rhett is a very close second. He’s a boy who constantly makes things harder for himself than he needs to but does so from a place of earnest compassion. He is untamed but not wild or feral, a young man brimming with potential and no idea what to do with it. His friends don’t just keep him on the right path but show him better, smarter, safer ones. He may not choose to do what’s good, but he always does what’s right.
Before I wrap this up, I to have a quick chat about the categorization of the Shadow series as historical fantasy rather than young adult. To me, the series really does feel like a young adult story. Historical/western? Yep! Fantasy? Totes! But more than anything the series is young adult fantasy. It’s a story about a young man figuring out how to move in the world, how to resist those who would hold him back and defy those who look down on him. He discovers he’s more than what he seemed to be and learns what to do with that newfound influence. He also learns the hard way that actions have consequences and the price of power is pain. Although he acts like an adult, there’s enough of the child left in him that his experiences are fresh and exciting and incomprehensible. Using the metrics of Chuck Wendig, another author who writes challenging and trope-breaking YA, Rhett’s journey pushes at the borders of young adult while still fitting squarely within it.
I get that the general public is more likely to read something that doesn’t have the YA tag, but some people’s ignorance shouldn’t disregard what the story really is. This happens a lot in adult fiction as well, with novels that are patently fantasy being marketed as literary so as to attract a wider audience, and it annoys me just as much there as it does here. Mislabeling a story may sell more books, but the side effect is readers missing out on reading more books in spec-fic genres because they don’t know what they really like. As far as I—a teen librarian and consummate reader of YA—am concerned, the Shadow series is young adult fantasy. So there.
Lila Bowen’s action-packed Shadow series is a YA Weird West at its best. It’s a knockdown, drag out brawl of a story that gets better with each installment. Start with Wake of Vultures before devouring Conspiracy of Ravens, then call me when you’re ready to freak out over that shocker of a cliffhanger in Malice of Crows.
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.