After the glorious Weird West adventure of Lila Bowen’s Wake Of Vultures, this sequel is a bit disappointing. It’s not that the writing is any less compelling, or that the characters are any less fascinating; it’s just that the second book in the Shadow series feels far too much like, well, the second book in a series.
It picks up where the first book left off, as former slave Rhett takes a leap of faith and discovers yet another new facet of his identity: he can shape-shift into a carrion bird. Having defeated the monster stalking his dreams in the first book, he’s seeking a new quest with all the friends he made last time around, plus a few more stragglers for good measure.
The new quest turns out to be vanquishing railroad tycoon-slash-wizard Bernard Trevisan, a creepy alchemist who enslaves magical creatures like Rhett and makes them lay the tracks for a mysterious railway. It’s a smart use of Western tropes, and Bowen gives it a suitably monstrous spin. But something in the structuring of this novel doesn’t work properly. It’s so packed with ideas, dilemmas, and characters that the actual plot doesn’t have much room to breathe.
It’s the least interesting part of the book, anyway. What’s interesting is Rhett’s continuing journey towards figuring out who he is. In the first novel, that quest meshed with his supernatural one; this time round, fighting Trevisan feels like a distraction. The open ending doesn’t help either; it basically does the equivalent of freezing Han in carbonite, leaving things frustratingly unresolved.
Maybe book three will make it all feel worthwhile, and in spite of everything it’s still a joy to spend time in Bowen’s alt-history world of magic and monsters.