Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen
Wake of Vultures hit all the right notes with me – right from the start. Trippy headlong ride into the weird wild west. Horrific monsters that go bump in the night – Vampires, skinwalkers, shapeshifters, vultures with claws and boobs that mock you and cackle in glee! You name it. The baddest of them being a monstrous Cannibal Owl that hunts and kills kids in the night! FTW!! Leading the charge against these horrors is an absolutely kickass protagonist, Nettie Lonesome – who’s as different from any conventional lead hero/heroine you’ve read about. Just like this book is an unconventionally refreshing and an absolutely delicious mash-up of elements like slack-jaw horror and mind-boggling world building of the wild-west minus the gunslinger tropes of old. But the heart of this book that appealed to me as a reader is the raw emotional core, the truths that cut away the cloak of childhood and helps the teenage protagonist come of age in a ruthless and brutal bad world.
This is Wild West like we’ve not seen before. Sure, we’ve seen the dry deserts, the rushes of mesquite reminding us perhaps of the Texan wilderness, the saloons, and the bronco ranches with the brotherhood of backslapping men before. But we haven’t seen a more desolate picture of the west like this – it’s a dead place. Devoid of hope. Where night brings in unimaginable monsters swooping down on you if you aren’t looking over your shoulders. The towns are deserted, coin is sparse and doesn’t really buy you much other than brackish water and stringy beef jerkies. As we encounter the towns in this book, we really feel that desperation deep down in our bones. It’s perhaps Lila’s writing – beautiful and punchy at the same time. The world is vividly drawn up, stark and gritty. There’s no getting away from this uneasy feel deep in our guts as we either walk in to a new town or just hover around exploring the wilderness in Durango. World building – unparalleled. The cakes of dust seems almost real.
But as I said before – it would be Nettie Lonesome who will hold your attention rapt as we go on an epic journey in the night with her and her strange allies to avenge the death of a red-indian baby. Nettie is half-indian, half-black – something of a rarity in Durango. She’s an orphan forced to slave away in a strange farm, her ‘Mam’ and ‘Pap’ are drunkards who don’t give a rat’s ass about the girl they took on, caring for her only as a farm-hand who can tend to the sad mules and cook breakfast for them, never truly having ‘adopted’ her in the family.
But the ray of hope for Nettie is the time she spends in the nearby ranch, her special bonds with horses helping her rise up to be something of an expert when it comes to breaking in the wild mares rounded off or even stolen from across the river. Her miserable existence, however takes a wild turn one night when she kills a monster who accidentally wanders into her pap’s farm. From then on, she can actually ‘see’ the monsters for what they are.
And in Lila Bowen’s west – monsters are many in form, shape and size. There’s the blood thirsty zombie type (‘Chupacabra’) your regular zonked-out-in-their-head but with a terrible psychological need to bite other humans and ‘infect’ them. Then there are vampires – beautiful ladies who lure in the rough and tumble rednecks in the saloons and promising a good time, essentially drink their blood leaving them sleepy but wholesome otherwise. The next level on that is the Siren – whose beautiful voice can ‘enrapture’ men and women alike and whose hunger is horrific. There are shapeshifters or skinwalkers – shifting between their human shape and animal ones like wolves, coyotes and the like in the desert. But the worst ones are the ‘harpies’ – vultures that look vaguely human or female – boobs, claws and fangs that can rip into men. And the wake of vultures are just the gatekeepers to the mother of all horrors, Pia Mupitsi – a large cannibalistic owl that steals babies at night and feeds on them.
Nettie is special – we know it in our hearts. And yet written in third person, Nettie’s self-doubts and soul searching leaves us wracked with doubts ourselves. But the best part is her resolute nature, never cowed down by her circumstances, she remains a shining example of the best of us. She struggles with her own identity – disguised as a man/boy and yet her feelings give her away. Be it with the boy on whom she’s had a huge crush since last summer or when confronted by a naked girl. She nevertheless remains a thrilling and engaging companion to rush into the night as the supernatural action unfolds relentlessly page after page.
The other characters stand out too – Dan Coyote, the mysterious Indian boy with his cocky attitude, Sam Henessey the friendly ranger who is also Nettie’s crush, the infuriating Winnifred, Dan’s sister cursed to die and even the gruff Captain.
If you think this is all bonkers, then you are right. It’s got gun fights galore in the night, vampire bordellos, zombie hunts and heart-stopping stunts all the way up to the stunning climax. And yet Lila’s writing, the headlong rush of gritty violence and the relentless pacing combined with the emotionally gut wrenching revelations that define Nettie’s coming of age just makes this book work so well at different levels. You will come for the unforgiving landscape, stay for monsters and be swept off by the raw emotions. Read this book!