Genre: Fantasy, Western, YA
Publisher: Orbit Books on October 27, 2015
My thanks to Orbit Books for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
Nettie Lonesome lives in a land of hard people and hard ground dusted with sand. She’s a half-breed who dresses like a boy, raised by folks who don’t call her a slave but use her like one.She knows of nothing else. That is, until the day a stranger attacks her. When nothing, not even a sickle to the eye can stop him, Nettie stabs him through the heart with a chunk of wood, and he turns into black sand.
And just like that, Nettie can see.
But her newfound sight is a blessing and a curse. Even if she doesn’t understand what’s under her own skin, she can sense what everyone else is hiding — at least physically. The world is full of evil, and now she knows the source of all the sand in the desert. Haunted by the spirits, Nettie has no choice but to set out on a quest that might lead to her true kin… if the monsters along the way don’t kill her first.
Lila Bowen’s WAKE OF VULTURES is not only entirely original, fast-paced, and poignant, it also introduces one of the most memorable protagonists I’ve had the pleasure of reading about in recent years.
Mixed-race, an orphan, and a girl to boot, there’s a lot counting against Nettie Lonesome. Her “guardians” Mam and Pap treat her with neglect at best and outright malice at worst, acting as though the girl is their slave…a type of treatment that Nettie’s been conditioned all her life to accept. Things finally start looking up for Nettie when, dressed as a boy, she’s hired on at a nearby ranch where she can make use of her gift with horses. But nothing in Nettie’s life stays good for long, and she suddenly discovers that there are far more monstrous things out there on the dusty plain than Mam and Pap.
On the run, Nettie encounters a variety of people who make her question what she’s always been told about her past – and her worth. With grim humour and unflagging determination, Nettie faces prejudice and more than a few bullies head-on. Her ability to embrace and accept the differences and inherent contradictions within herself and others is an admirable personality trait, and it made for some thought-provoking introspection on Nettie’s part. Unlike most protagonists that fall into the “girl disguised as a boy” trope, Nettie doesn’t only dress this way for convenience. Nettie knows that biologically she’s a girl, but there’s little she finds more insulting than being referred to as a girl or a woman. Her opinion on her gender, and her identity at large, is this:
“Only I can say what I am.”
That’s Nettie in a nutshell: straight to the point, yet powerful all the same. WAKE OF VULTURES also features the most realistic portrayal of reactions to the “girl disguised as a boy” trope that I’ve ever encountered. It was heart-wrenching and honest and supremely satisfying to read about. Bravo to Lila Bowen.
Despite my gushing over Nettie, there’s a lot more to this book than just the characters. Nettie and her companions travel all across a re-imagined, weird Western Texas hunting monsters. The greatest of these monsters is the Cannibal Owl, a creature that eats children. The twists and turns kept me guessing throughout, and the stakes are much higher than your average YA novel. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, given that WAKE OF VULTURES is anything but average.
I switched between the print version and the audiobook of WAKE OF VULTURES, and I have to say that the audio version is perfection. If you’re a fan of audiobooks, I can’t recommend this one enough! Robin Miles’ performance is unparalleled, making use of subtle accents, timing, and tone to convey the uniqueness of Nettie and all those she encounters. Her voices for the various monsters are on point as well.
Highly recommended to those looking for darker reads, diverse protagonists, and boundary-pushing YA novels.