Haunted by the Past: Lila Bowen’s Treason of Hawks

At the end of Malice of Crows, Rhett experiences a loss so devastating, he doesn’t think anything could ever be worse. Treason of Hawks proves him wrong time and time again. In fact, “worse” is an understatement. Rhett goes through hell physically, psychologically, romantically, emotionally.

The fourth and final book in Lila Bowen’s excellent Shadow series picks up right where the third book left off, and never lets up on the tension. Wicked Ranger Haskell and his band of brutes are harrying Rhett’s trail as a gang of chupacabras taunt his motley crew. Meanwhile, an unknown fiend is picking off the people from Rhett’s past, leaving them dry, desiccated husks. And on top of all this, supernatural beasties from all across Durango are making their way to Rhett’s camp at Inès’ mission. Something is drawing them to the Shadow, and whatever it is, the Shadow knows not everyone will make it out alive. All he wants is a quiet life of cattle ranching and romancing Sam, but what Rhett wants and what the Shadow demands are two separate things. The fight of his life is coming … and Rhett isn’t ready.

With Rhett, Lila Bowen demonstrates once again how adept she is as writing difficult characters. Rhett is easy to love but not easy to like. He makes plenty of bad decisions, doesn’t think things through, and often acts on selfish impulse rather than strategic planning. These could be faults, but Bowen weaves them together in such a way that they feel like traits instead. Rhett is who he is, recklessness and all. He is a fundamentally good person trapped in a terrible situation where every choice will benefit some at the expense of others. All he can do is try to mitigate the harm as much as possible.

Rhett is also gruff and grumpy much of the time, yet he is also learning to compromise and lead. Some of it’s just his naturally cantankerous way, but most of it comes from holding on too tightly to gender stereotypes. After his awful childhood, it’s no wonder he has such a limited perspective on what women can do. And given that his freedom came part and parcel with taking on a male identity, it’s obvious why he has such stringent views on what women can’t do. Setting aside those biases is tied to settling into his maleness, becoming comfortable with his body, and shedding the twin stains of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy.

In the past I’ve argued that the Shadow series reads more like young adult fantasy than adult fantasy. Rhett’s journey through various identities—from Nettie to Nat to Ned and now Rhett, with the Shadow uniting them all—to me read like YA bildungsroman. The language used, the lessons learned, and the framing of Rhett’s discoveries about himself and what he wants, were about as YA as it gets. With Treason of Hawks, Bowen leaned hard into adult. Nothing about it even remotely hints at YA. Rhett may be a teenager, but he’s a grown man as far as he and the fourth book are concerned. Rhett knows who he is now. He’s learned all he can about his destiny, identity, and personal ethics. He has a goal and sets out to achieve it. Everyone sees him as a confident adult rather than a scrappy kid in over his head. As much as I love reading young adult fiction, and as much as I think reading Wake of Vultures, Conspiracy of Ravens, and Malice of Crows as YA work pretty well, I loved Treason of Hawks as adult fiction even more.

The only noteworthy glitch in the structure of Treason of Hawks was that for much of it, I kept forgetting this was the last book. The first two-thirds read like the fourth book in an ongoing series, but not until the remaining hundred or so pages did it coalesce into the final installment. I’m not entirely convinced the way the conflict was resolved is strong enough to close out the series. There was a lot of bringing back old characters and coming to terms with things, but upon reflection, Treason of Hawks felt less like the climax of four books worth of mounting tension and more like tying up loose ends.

The misalignment was in large part caused by the reveal of the Big Bad. I would’ve liked to see more seeding of the Big Bad in previous entries rather than dropping them in at the last minute. Bowen has a series-wide habit of withholding—the main antagonists were similarly absent from large chunks of the other books. In this case I think it did the story no favors, particularly when the villain was more caricature than character.

Fortunately, the character work on the rest of the cast is so superb that it makes up for everything else. Every time someone I loved was dusted, my heart lurched in my chest. I don’t generally cry at books, but it’s a testament to Bowen that I felt the deaths of her characters so deeply that I was nearly brought to tears.

Overall, Treason of Hawks is a strong story that soars when it finally gets around to dealing with issues that have been piling up throughout the series. With high octane action and irresistible characters, the Shadow series is one of the best weird west fantasies out there. I’m sad to see Rhett go, but I’m glad that his final story is as good as this one.

Treason of Hawks is available from Orbit.

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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