Friday, 24 May 2013

Book Review | Black Feathers by Joseph D'Lacey

It is the Black Dawn, a time of environmental apocalypse.

It is the Bright Day, a time generations hence, when a peace has descended across the world.

In each era, a child undertakes a perilous journey to find a dark messiah known as the Crowman. But is he our saviour... or the final incarnation of evil?


There can be no question that the world we live in is a very different one than that of our ancestors.

I dare say we'll debate the whys and the wherefores of this issue till we're blue in the face, but the fact of the matter is obscenely simple: our world has seen better days than these. As have we as a people—according to Joseph D'Lacey, at least. Look at "the weather, the economy, the self-serving government, the crooked legal system, the diseases and food shortages [...] If only we'd cared a little more for each other and a little less for ourselves." (p.324)

Well, if wishes were horses—why, we'd be riding gleefully into the future, wouldn't we?

And perhaps we will, one day... but not today, eh? Today, as they say, is unsustainable. Today cannot last.

So what of tomorrow? What of the world of our children, and our children's children? Tomorrow's world, I warrant, will be different again from ours, whether for better... or for worse. There are startling extrapolations of both futures in Black Feathers, the first part of a darkly fantastic duology by the man the British Fantasy Society named Best Newcomer in 2009.

Before D'Lacey looks ahead, however, he casts his eye back a ways, to the birth of a baby boy:
"A freak gust had sucked open a window. Unexpected winter breathed into the room. Snowflakes twirled in and fell to the carpet. A fleeting impression of black wings beating their way into the night was interrupted by the curtains billowing inward. [...] Louis shut his eyes, committing the scene to memory. It was sacred and extreme, both beautiful and base. A smell from the room lingered in his nostrils; the dry, almost Alpine chilld of the air and the moist scent of Sophie's sweat and blood." (pp.15-16)
So it is that Gordon Black comes into the world, causing as much fuss in his first flush as he does later in life, and accompanied—as ever—by a murder of black-feathered birds. Thus, from day one, his parents realise that there's something... different about their son; a problem which only becomes more pressing as Gordon grows older. We all fall to wondering who we really are from time to time, but some questions are not so easily answered. Some questions don't even have answers.

Yet time marches on regardless.

Fast forward to a period resembling the present day, in which Gordon approaches his adolescence, ever more aware that he doesn't fit in amongst all the other kids with, yes, their pumped-up kicks. Gordon however has other interests than new shoes. Sure, he'd like a few friends of his own, but he's more interested in a safe place to call home. Above all else, Gordon wants his family to be happy, and whole.

He should be so lucky. He really should be; that's not a lot to ask, after all. Alas, "the world is descending into chaos and there's a simple reason for it. We've abused it. We've drained it. We've mined it. We've cut down its forests. We've over-farmed its land and turned it into a desert. There's no part of the world untainted by the touch of humanity," (p.167) and Mother Earth has finally declared an endgame: the Black Dawn is coming. And unless Gordon does something about it—he's the only person in a position to, for reasons that will become clear—every living thing will be lost.
"This is the beginning of a story. A true story. One greater and more far-reaching than the story of a pale, gentle boy; it is the story of the Black Dawn and the Bright Day, the story of the world's rebirth. And she must learn it." (p.150)
She is Megan Maurice, apprentice to an old storyteller come medicine man—called a Keeper by the people of this period—and in her world, a Bright Day beckons: a time of peace, and love, and longed-for light. But the way there is shrouded in shadow. Lies and snakes and spiders lurk between the moment she submits to her master and the era of spiritual wealth ahead.

Like Gordon, Megan too has a duty. Meanwhile she is haunted by horrible dreams, as is he. And though untold generations separate them, they dream, sometimes, of one another. In this way the past and the future are entwined: a divide, and indeed an interdependence, which Joseph D'Lacey makes much of over the course of Black Feathers.

D'Lacey has been writing steadily since making waves with the publication of his wonderfully disgusting debut in early 2008. Garbage Man, Snake Eyes, The Kill Crew and Blood Fugue all followed in the mould of Meat, to a certain extent, but Black Feathers is something different, I think. Gone are the grotesque excesses of yesteryear—torture porn this is not. The latest from D'Lacey is as bleak as ever his work has been, but it's sweeter as well, and ultimately much more meaningful.

I'd go so far as to say that Black Feathers represents the maturation of his practised craft.

Which isn't to say it's perfect by any stretch. To begin with, it's pretty preachy. Given the preceding quotes, I hardly need note that if you aren't into the idea of the world as a living, breathing being, you should steer clear... but beyond that, D'Lacey sometimes comes on too strong, surfacing the green politics of the premise every time the opportunity to do so presents itself. I'm in complete agreement with the author on most of the points he makes, but even I was rolling my eyes the tenth time he iterated on the population problem.

There's also some dodgy dialogue. Some confusion at the outset as to what was happening when—and to who, too. And the convenient appearance of several peripheral perspectives took me out of the story rather than drawing me deeper into its weave.

In every other respect, however, Black Feathers is something special. Equal parts a novel of the apocalypse and a powerful coming of age tale—as much The Stand as Stand By Me, if I may—D'Lacey's latest grabbed me from the potent prologue, and let go only when the new had become old, and the story told.

No longer a boy but not yet a man, Gordon is a fascinating character from the first, and he develops a great deal before Black Feathers is over. His journey of self-discovery is punctuated by painful realisation, awful responsibility, feelings of inadequacy... and the clamouring carrion call of something called the Crowman:
"In every depiction of cataclysm, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes a tiny representation watching from afar, stood the same figure. Long dark hair hanging over his features, arms stretched wide and upwards as if in summoning, a long coat covering most of his body, and at his cuffs and ankles something like black straw or black lightning instead of fingers. Some sketches were portraits in close-up. A beak for a face, grey eyes fixed on the artist or viewer, hair like skeins of black silk and everywhere black feathers falling like snow. A few of the pictures weren't of a man at all but were merely studies of crows, some in flight, some sitting in high branches, some lying dead in the deserted streets." (p.230)
Visions of this figure assault Megan as well, and though she is certainly of secondary interest in the beginning of Black Feathers, her half of the narrative—which D'Lacey uses to illuminate elements of Gordon's desperate perspective—builds to a tremendous crescendo at the end. I look forward to finding out what's next for her in the latter volume of this duology.

In lieu of book two of The Black Dawn, let me stress that Black Feathers is perfectly satisfying on its own. Hugely approachable, and immensely readable, it represents an effective narrative with rewarding characters, rich imagery and an atmosphere so stark that you really feel the horror of it all. Of course this isn't the first time that the end of the world has meant something, but whether you buy into its author's politics or not, Black Feathers is a deftly rendered realisation of a reckoning that seems, by all accounts, almost inevitable.


Black Feathers
by Joseph D'Lacey

UK Publication: April 2013, Angry Robot Books
US Publication: March 2013, Angry Robot Books

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  1. This is one book I've definitely got my eye on. I bought a copy as soon as I could after it came out, and only getting caught up in other novels has prevented me from reading it. But from everything I've been hearing around various blogs, when I do get around to reading it, I'm going to enjoy it!

    1. Pretty safe to say you are, yes — assuming you don't mind a little environmentally-friendly messaging in your evening's reading! Really pleased to hear you've been feeling a bit better, incidentally, and let me wish you the best of luck with the rest of your recovery. :)