Wow. I’m not entirely sure what to say about this book. I loved it, and was tremendously impressed by it – but, oddly, I made only one note as I read it. Maybe I was just too caught up in the read to think about it.
Lila Bowen takes a corner of space and time that few others have paid attention to, and she makes it her own. It’s a ways after the Civil-War in the Southwest US, yet Nettie Lonesome is basically a slave. Black amid whites, a girl with the desire and ability to do the things only men do, utterly unloved and unremarked, when her life is changed by an unexpected, unexpectedly supernatural attack, she walks away from her old life with hardly a thought, and remakes herself. She goes with her instincts and disguises herself – successfully – as a boy: Rhett. In the best F&SF tradition, she begins to seek to create her own family where none has ever existed for her before.
And then things turn upside-down again. Ghosts, creatures, shapeshifters – after a childhood and youth of unrelentingly painful sameness, suddenly she has more excitement to face than she could ever have dreamed. And she falls in with the Rangers – who, it turns out, are primarily tasked with fighting not Indians or Mexicans but supernatural dangers.
This was a fascinating aspect of the story for me. At one point the captain muses about perception. They would follow a trace or a cry for help into a town or settlement, where something would have been having its way with the populace, laying waste and eating its fill. In would come the Rangers, and destroy the whatever-it-was – but “by the time news reaches a town, all that’s left of the monsters is sand and ashes.” A number of citizens are dead; those who saw what did it don’t believe the evidence of their own sense; the things that did do it are dead and gone. And there are the Rangers, figuratively standing over the bodies. “We keep folks safe, and they villainize us for it…”
There are lots more surprises, for the reader and for Nettie herself, all the way up to the end – which (warning!) is an all but literal cliffhanger. I have never been so glad to have immediate access to a sequel, I think, because I was fully invested in the story, the setting, and the characters – especially, of course, Nettie herself. It’s a wonderful, remarkable, unique world Lila Bowen has created out of this desert.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.