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Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen

Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen
4
Book Name: Malice of Crows
Author: Lila Bowen
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy Western
Release Date: October 31, 2017 (US) November 2, 2017 (UK)

Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for earlier books in the series, but nothing beyond what you’d see on the back covers of the books.

Malice of Crows, book three of The Shadow series, by Lila Bowen (a.k.a. Delilah S. Dawson) was ranked among Fantasy-Faction’s Best Books of 2017 but somehow, we didn’t review it when it came out last fall—an oversight that needed to be addressed.

Personally, I’m a sucker for fantasy novels set in historical periods (or tech levels) other than the classic fantasy setting of something along the lines of 12th-13th century Western Europe. And while that might be enough to initially hook me, it’s not enough to keep me on the line. It’s Bowen’s characters, story, and writing that keep me coming back for more, eagerly awaiting each new installment.

Once again, Bowen begins her book just where the previous installment, Conspiracy of Ravens, leaves off. Durango Ranger Rhett Walker has shut down Trevisan’s operations on the railroad fueled by an evil blood magic, but the necromancer has escaped into the body of six-year-old Meimei, the younger sister of Cora, Trevisan’s healer and a shape shifter capable of becoming a dragon. Now Rhett, Cora, Dan (a Native American who can shift into a coyote) and his sister Winfred (cursed to die nine times), Earl (an Irishman who can shift into a donkey), and handsome Sam Hennessy (not a shifter, just a human, albeit a fellow Ranger), are chasing Trevisan into the desert to stop him (permanently) and save Meimei (if possible).

It’s a chase story, racing with quick pacing. Which isn’t to say this is a straightforward tale because Rhett is also the Shadow—avenger of wrongs and killer of bad men and monsters. And the Shadow will often feel a tug in his guts, pulling him in directions he doesn’t always want to go but always needs to go, almost like a literal moral compass. So while Rhett is dead set on hunting down Trevisan, the Shadow can’t ride in a straight line. And unfortunately, that means Rhett can’t help himself from charging directly towards big dangers, even if it means putting his life or those around him at risk. Which is all to say that Bowen has created a powerful concoction that is not only fun, but also inclusive, and with a gut punch of an ending.

I hear a lot about good leaders being comfortable in their own skin. While I won’t go so far as to say that Rhett has become comfortable in his own (shifting) skin, he is coming to terms with who and what he is. He knows what he wants, what drives him, how far he’ll go to put down an evil creature, and how hard he’ll fight to protect the people he cares about. He also knows a good portion of the world will never accept him. In their eyes, he’s a freak, a threat, a pretender. That’s the life not only of the Shadow, but also of a half-black, half-Native transman. Rhett knows his life is one of overcoming resistance, of taking on risk, and facing danger. And he knows every step of the way puts his posse at risk. It tears him up, but he won’t back down. And so I love rooting for him.

Although Rhett is at the heart of this group, Bowen has also created an inclusive group of characters to surround him. Trans, gay, bi, asexual, mixed race, Native, Asian—the posse is incredibly diverse. The first white, hetero male I could think of was Trevisan, and in this case, he looks like a six-year-old Chinese girl. But Bowen doesn’t deal in tokenism. These are nuanced characters who have a depth of motivations, passions, experiences, and pain. Rhett isn’t the only one leading a hard life. Each member of the posse faces racism or sexism or ableism, or a combination. Even Trevisan has his reasons and experiences people thinking about him based only on his appearance.

In a book full of shape shifters, mythical creatures, and blood magic, there’s a lot of talk of what it means to be a monster, an outsider, an outcast. There is talk of passing and hiding and living a closeted life. And the pain and pleasure of being free of the lies, of moving forward, despite the slings and arrows of the everyday idiots. For a book that is nominally about chases, escapes, scrapes, and gunfights, it’s often Bowen’s quieter moments of reflection or processes of growth that I found more striking.

I fear that I have made this review sound a bit too heavy or that this book is only about inclusivity. No. It’s a western adventure story that just so happens to have a real cast instead of something out of 1950s Central Casting. At its heart this is an adventure. It’s a western tale of a race through the dangerous desert to bring justice to a bad man and save the little girl. And along the way, there are gila monsters and gorgons, sasquatches and six shooters, horses and unicorns, shootouts and make outs. I mean really, why aren’t you reading this series again? If you haven’t started already, you really should correct that.

After all, the fourth and final installment, Treason of Hawks, comes out in fall 2018. So if you start the Shadow series now, you still have time to catch up. So get reading. I can’t wait for you to get to know Rhett and the gang.

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