Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Short Story Review | The Flight of the Ravens by Chris Butler

In the year 1889, childhood friends Bernard and Elizabeth are essentially inseparable... until a deadly game divides them forever after. The BFFs cannot resist but investigate an abandoned building, nor, alas, can its occupant—some sort of a soul-sucking vampire, complete with red wine and a raven—resist the visiting children. He vanishes Bernard, to devour at a later date, and casts Elizabeth out, alone yet alive, that she may remember this terrible day.

Ten years passed, years in which Elizabeth lived with the certain knowledge that there were monsters in the world and they would consume you if you did not adequately protect yourself. To that end, she learned all she could of the magical nature of the world.
Fast forward to the turn of the century, during which period the bulk of this gloomy tale takes place. Even now, Elizabeth unable to talk about the events of that fateful night, but Bernard’s father has taken an interest in her development in any event. In fact, she and Huginn have becomes fast friends themselves.

The loss has so overwhelmed Huginn’s wife, however, that a certain turn-of-the-century psychologist—let’s play Spot the Sigmund!—has had to take her into his care.

Then, when a parent comes to the school where Elizabeth currently works to enrol his son as a new student, Elizabeth finds herself falling for yet another father figure. But there is more to Lukas Nostrand than meets the eye, and only Huginn seems to see it.

Though Chris Butler has been nominated for four BSFA awards before, 'The Flight of the Ravens' is the first of his stories to hit the shortlist proper, and I dare say it takes a certain amount of creativity to think of it as science fiction in any sense.

Indeed, whilst reading through it for the column this review previously featured in, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop... for some aspect of the narrative to be unmasked as science fictional in some way. But no. No such turns occur. The closest we get to the tropes typical of that category is a black hole in someone’s belly—but this is an incidental glimpse at best. At bottom, 'The Flight of the Ravens' is a fairly straightforward story about gods and monsters.

Huginn and Muninn were the ravens of Odin, king of the Norse gods. The ravens were brothers. Huginn was the thoughtful one, interested in the why of thing, while Muninn sought to unlock all the mysteries of the world, to know the what and the how. [...] In times of war, the ravens were intelligence-gatherers. In the times between wars, they brought Odin knowledge and understanding of the worlds, so that he, already the wisest of gods, could become wiser still.
Call it historical horror, or dark fantasy perhaps, but whatever you do, don’t think of 'The Flight of the Ravens' as science fiction. It simply isn’t. Which leaves me wondering why in the world the British Science Fiction Association opted to shortlist it for an award.

That said, this is the same organisation who crowned Coraline as the year’s Best Short Story in 2002. Read into that what you will.

So 'The Flight of the Ravens' is a far cry from sci-fi. Nor, by most measures, could you call it short fiction. At almost 100 pages long, with 25 short chapters, several narrative perspectives, three time periods and scenes taking place from Frankfurt to Amsterdam—not to mention Vienna—Chris Butler’s novella has markedly more opportunity to (ahem) spread its wings than any of this year’s nominees for the BSFA’s Best Short Story trophy... yet it lacks the impact of even the least of these.

The premise is nothing new; the scattershot narrative is, shall we say, strangely paced; and through it all, the denouement is a forgone conclusion, albeit one with an interesting twist.

Thus, our penultimate contender seems utterly out of place on this specific shortlist, but leaving aside questions of form and content, 'The Flight of the Ravens' is a fine, if not sublime story, with absorbing characters, an authentic setting and undeniably admirable ambitions. Though I struggle to understand what the British Science Fiction Association see in said, overall I enjoyed the experience of reading it regardless.


'The Flight of the Ravens' by Chris Butler was published by Immersion Press in September 2012. You can buy a copy of the novella here.

1 comment:

  1. The BSFA Awards are for speculative fiction, not science fiction. Admittedly you can't often tell this from the shortlists.