1 November 2017

Review - Malice of Crows by Lila Bowen

Image from www.orbitbooks.net
Malice of Crows (Shadow, 3)
Lila Bowen
Orbit, 2 November 2017
PB, 344pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Following directly on from Wake of Vultures and Conspiracy of Ravens, Malice of Crows picks up Rhett Walker's story immediately after Conspiracy ends. He's defeated the necromancer Trevisan, who was using gruesome magic to control monsters like Rhett - ordinary men and women with the ability to transform into animals, both mundane and esoteric - and compel them to labour building his railroad.

Yes - Trevisan was defeated, but fleeing he possessed the body of six year old Meimei, sister to Cora the healer (who is able to become a dragon when she wishes). Now Rhett - in his persona as The Shadow, avenger of wrongs and slayer of what needs to be killed, must track down Trevisan and free Meimei. Thus the story is really one long chase through the barren wastes of Durango Territory, with Rhett's posse confronting ever more daunting threats (not going to give details because spoilers).

Walker is a Durango Ranger and proud of it. It's his identity, given to him by his beloved Captain. But we learn more in the course of this book about what that means. Rhett's pride in this status takes a hammering: it seems the Rangers aren't all he believed. Not just slayers of monsters, they are a weapon of the 'civilized' world, driving out the native people - and Rhett happens to be one of those himself. In many dialogues with Coyote Dan and his sister, Winifred, Rhett seeks to come to terms with who he is and what his destiny will be. In another sense, he is learning who he is from Sam. Beautiful, golden haired Sam, who he has loved since Rhett was called Nettie Lonesome. The story of Rhett and Sam gives the book a whole different dimension though there are some heart stopping moments when it seems Rhett may give away his former identity. What will happen if Sam discovers how old Monty, his (and Nettie/ Rhett's) former mentor, actually died?

There are secrets here, and complicated identities jostling against each other: in other hands it could all seem overcomplicated but Bowen (Delilah S Dawson) knows just what she's doing and she makes Rhett, Sam, Winifred, Cora, Earl so alive, and drives them along through such a pacy series of fights, flights, escapes and puzzles, that characters and story just leap from the page.

Gradually Rhett becomes more comfortable with his identities both as man and as monster. Bowen animates her story by making the 'outsiders' into so-called 'monsters' who are at the same time the most human of the characters. At one point a frustrated Rhett shouts out that he's 'unnatural': his friends help him see that isn't true at all. But Rhett is a monster and Trevisan, for all his necromancy and murder, isn't a 'monster', he remains just a man. Being able to pass in polite society, wield power and money and claim the protection of sheriffs - and Rangers - is no guarantee of a good heart.

I loved this book. As a continuation of Rhett's story it has the same epic storytelling as the earlier volumes, but I think it explores his personality more throughly and shows him growing. The book is proudly, obstinately diverse, on a number of different dimensions while at the same time being a sharply written, exciting and in some ways endearingly old-fashioned Western, albeit one set in a slightly parallel world with magic - and monsters - acknowledged. Whether you like action, fantasy, a bit of tender romance or just a well-written, entertaining story, you'll find them - and more - here.

The author very kindly answered some questions about the books for me last year - you can read what she said here.

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