Genre: YA, Fantasy, Western
Publisher: Orbit Books on October 11, 2016
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
Monsters, magic and the supernatural combine in this sequel to Wake of Vultures, in which a young woman must defeat the evil hiding beneath the surface. View Spoiler »
If the phrase “weird western” makes your ears perk up, or if you’re interested in reading SF/F featuring a trans character, then Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series is for you. While I didn’t love CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS nearly as much as I loved WAKE OF VULTURES, I still enjoyed the story and I think it provides an important, underrepresented perspective for readers.
The story in CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS picks up right where the first book left off – which was a vicious cliffhanger – with Rhett having just used his magical ability for the first time. A lot of this story focuses on him coming to terms with his destiny as The Shadow, a monster tasked with tracking down other monsters who need killing for one reason or another. It’s some old-school frontier justice, monster style. For Rhett, no matter what he truly wants to do and where he wants to go, his life isn’t his own. There’s a call he needs to answer…even if it means leaving some of his friends behind. But have no fear, fans of the series will be pleased that Sam, Coyote Dan, and Winifred all accompany Rhett on his next mission: taking down a corrupt rail boss who enslaves his workers with magic.
Despite the potential for another fast-paced and action-packed read, much of the plot in CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS is predicated upon a journey from one part of the desert to another. So don’t expect too much in the way of plot-related thrills and chills, because the pacing was rather slow and uneven. During the middle of the book I actually found it difficult to muster much interest in the storyline at all, but I persisted (heh) and things did eventually pick up from there…although admittedly not quite as much as I would’ve liked.
Part of the reason this book is so light on plot is because of the in-depth examination of Rhett as a character, which is an absolutely necessary component of a CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS. Unlike the first book where we read from the perspective of Nettie/Rhett, here Rhett has fully transitioned and is now grappling with the mental and emotional labour that comes along with that. Personally, I think Bowen does a very good job representing how difficult it is for Rhett, especially the cognitive dissonance that comes with the biological issues that FTM trans people may need to deal with. But despite all this, Rhett is empowered to be himself fully now that he’s transitioned and that’s been great to read about.
Rhett’s romantic and sexual relationships are also explored, with considerably less success in my opinion. In one scene, Rhett and another character have sex under the influence of magic and while Rhett remembers it and is pleased, his partner does not remember…and Rhett consciously chooses not to tell them. That’s really messed up. Unfortunately, Rhett’s also extra self-absorbed this time around, and doesn’t think about how his actions (or inaction) will harm the people he ostensibly cares about. I realize that the dude’s seventeen, but come on buddy. You can do better.
Even though I struggled with the slow pacing and some of Rhett’s choices, I still think that this is a strong series and I plan to continue on with it. Here’s hoping that CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS simply had a case of the sophomore slump, and the third book is stronger!