This is going to be a complicated review to write. Partly that’s because I do have to venture into spoiler territory to discuss the things I need to discuss. And partly because some of the things I want to write about may be affected by what happens in book 2 of the series, which is already available. Ideally I would read the second book before committing myself to an opinion, but actually not being able to form one makes the review more interesting.
Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures is an example of what I think is a fairly recent phenomenon: fantasy westerns. From that superficial point of view I found the book an entertaining read. I don’t have any significant complaints about Bowen’s authorial talents. About the only thing that caused me any problems with the plot is that the main villain is a monster called The Cannibal Owl. I quickly became convinced that this creature was the Evil Twin of the better known Superb Owl, and I kept waiting for that beloved creature to arrive on the scene, throw a Hail Mary touchdown pass, and save the day.
The book is set in a fantasy version of Texas called Durango. It features the Texas Rangers as monster hunters, and a whole range of supernatural creatures. The central character is Nettie, a young woman of mixed ancestry who is part black and part Comanche. She (and I am copying the author here in using female pronouns for Nettie) is also a Chosen One, a hero called The Shadow, who is feted to destroy certain powerful monsters.
Nettie’s black ancestry barely features in the book. Presumably it will be explored more in later volumes in the series. Her Native ancestry is much more important, though having been raised by white people her view of “Injuns” is inevitably highly prejudiced. Bowen is clearly aiming for a traditional western feel here rather than exhibiting prejudice herself, and the other Native characters in the book are shown to be more heroic than most of the whites. Nevertheless I can imagine many Native American readers finding the book uncomfortable.
I read the book because I had been told that there was a trans character in it. I spent a lot of time waiting for this person to show up. They never did. Lots of people, including the author, seem to think that Nettie is a trans person. I think that they are mistaken, though I do think that she’s a very good example of someone who today would describe themselves as Questioning.
I have a lot of trouble with cis historians who insist that no one from the past can possibly be trans. It is a particular issue with historical characters who were assigned female at birth but live all of their adult lives as men. I keep getting told that these people are “obviously” behaving as they do for the economic and social advantages that being seen as male brings. I’m sure that will be the case for some of them, but I think that the more time the person spent living as male, the more invested they appeared to be in that identity, the more likely it is that they would have identified as male in some way.
It should go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said: the converse is also true. Just because a person spends some or all of their life cross-dressed, it does not mean that they identify as trans.
What do we know about Nettie? Well, she has a passion for horses, and wants to be a cowboy when she grows up. Early on in the book she runs away from her abusive foster parents and gets a job at a ranch. She has to disguise herself as a boy to do so. She muses occasionally about gender, and clearly has no time for femininity, but equally her desires for herself are primarily to be a cowboy, not to be a man. She wants the latter only as a route to the former.
Nettie does appear to be bisexual. She exhibits attraction to both Sam Hennessy, a gay lad she meets in the Rangers, and to Winifred, a Comanche girl who can shape-shift into a coyote. She may be attracted to sex workers in a saloon as well, but I suspect that was just them exercising their vampiric powers of fascination on her.
The events of the book only cover a few weeks. I think it is entirely possible that, with time, Nettie will grow into her male identity and find that it suits her. Many trans people don’t realize that they are trans until they have an opportunity to live in another gender and discover how natural that feels to them. However, any suggestion that this might happen is fatally undermined by Bowen who insists on referring to Nettie as female at every opportunity. In the author’s note at the end of the book she says that she sees Nettie as trans. However, on the basis of Wake of Vultures I am forced to conclude that, as far as Bowen is concerned, being a trans man means being someone who is “really” a woman but who cross-dresses to live as a man.
In one way I would be glad if Nettie isn’t trans. That’s because during the book Bowen does that awful thing that cis people feel they must do to trans characters — insert some plot element that requires the trans person to go back to their birth gender for a while. Please don’t do this, people, you have no idea how painful it will be for your character (unless they are highly gender-fluid, but in that case you wouldn’t need a plot excuse).
As I said up front, there is a second book available. I will read it at some point because I do think there is a great opportunity to explore Nettie as a Questioning character who may well end up as non-binary in some way. However, the way this book is written, and what Bowen says in the author’s note, I’m by no means convinced that will happen.
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