I have been meaning to read Delilah S. Dawson’s work for quite some time. She writes fantasy as Lila Bowen, so I went to the library and checked out the first book in her Shadow series, to see what I would see.
This is one of the best beginnings of a book that I have ever read. In the span of three chapters our heroine Nettie Lonesome murders a vampire, proves her worth to the neighboring ranch, and escapes her life with her adoptive, drunk “parents” to be a bronc breaker under the name of Nat (everyone assumes she is a boy). It begins as a western that quickly becomes a fantasy quest.
Just when we think our heroine is safe, well-fed, and living her dream, a mostly dead Indian woman finds her way onto the ranch, gets Nettie to agree to seek her revenge for her, and then rides off on a mythical ocean steed, vowing to haunt her until the Cannibal Owl is destroyed. Nettie’s not real sure what the Cannibal Owl is, but she knows she doesn’t want to be haunted by an old Indian woman and in danger of being drowned by ocean water hundreds of miles away from its source.
Eventually she is forced from the ranch an discovers there are more horrors out in the desert than vampires. She’s pursued by a harpy, saved by a skinwalker and his sister, and brought to the rangers to see if they will train her(him) and accompany her on her mission to kill the Cannibal Owl. They agree, and share stories about what the Cannibal Owl has done, mostly stealing children from towns and eating them, one which was just a newborn baby.
There are a million reasons to love this book. You don’t have to be half black, half Native American to identify with Nettie Lonesome. Her entire attitude of zero fucks to give about being a woman, about being a tool of revenge, about possibly being a mythical Shadow being – all she wants to do is be a man and work with horses. Every step of her journey is one less thing she has to do before she can go home or find a place on a nearby ranch to do what she loves.
This narrative tackles gender and being able to choose the gender you identify as, in addition to LGBT relationships. It shows us what perseverance and trust can mean in the face of a destiny you do not want. One of the intricate issues Bowen/Dawson explores is what it might mean when the gender you choose to present confuses those who might be gay or bisexual when you are not. What happens when a male character who is gay falls for Nettie when she is pretending to be a man? This part of the book made me think about this situation, it was one I hadn’t considered before, and the communication, understanding, and delicacy that the miscommunication required was amazing to read. Even within the community of LGBT there is patience that is required as everyone navigates their identities and their sexualities.
The worldbuilding was wonderful, the characters were compelling and interesting, and the story held me in my seat until the very end. It’s a book that tackles important issues in a normal way in the midst of a fantasy quest. Go get you some.