Sunday, April 7, 2013

Joseph D'Lacey's BLACK FEATHERS #OneBookAtATime

If you've ever wondered what the result would be like if Neil Gaiman wrote a post-apocalyptic fable that attempted to rehabilitate the character of Damien Thorn, look no further than Black Feathers.

Gordon Black, one of the two protagonists of Black Feathers, is not precisely Damien, but the circumstances of and mysteries surrounding his birth are just as ominous and prophecy-burdened as that famous son-of-the-devil, and one would spend a lot of the story wondering if he couldn't really be just as evil* -- were it not for the other narrative, concerning the other protagonist, one Megan Maurice, a child living generations later than Damien, who grew up in the pastoral/agricultural paradise of the "Bright Day" following the "Black Dawn" that ended Damien's (and our) mechanized, industrialized, computerized world. From Megan's perspective, Gordon is a more of a messiah than an antichrist, a psychopomp set to guide her to revelations about an archetypal figure known as the Crowman, in whose power lies the salvation of the Bright Day world.

The novel alternates between Gordon's story of escape and pursuit as his world comes to an end, and Megan's pursuit of Gordon's story through a series of shamanistic escapades, because keeping Gordon's story alive in the minds of her people is vital to the continued well-being of Megan's community and the land it stewards, land only recently recovered from the Sheep Look Up devastations of pollution, overfarming, etc. visited on it by Gordon's people (i.e. us). The mystery of why this is so is kept artfully from us, so we wind up very much empathizing with both children, neither of whom has a clear idea of what is expected of them, both of whom are motivated by a sincere earnestness, a desire to do right by the people who love them. As clueless as they, we trip along with them, carried by some very graceful prose and imagery, and the wonderful ambiguity of the Crowman they both seek. Is the Crowman, cast by tradition as an evil, Satanic figure in black, good or evil? Or is he simply the amoral avatar of the earth itself, memorably depicted early on as "shaking off" humanity like a bad case of fleas as Gordon's world comes to its miserable end? There is an edge of brutality to him/it, as well there should be -- nature red in tooth and claw and all that. He is as compelling a figure as the archetypal Green Man which inspired him, and I want more of him, and of his prophet/harbinger/servant/avatar Gordon.

Alas, while Gordon is a vivid and sympathetic character, whose plight (trying to keep one step ahead of the totalitarian Ward -- government, police and military rolled into one New World Order nightmare -- who have "collected" his family and are using them as bait to lure him into their clutches) and coming of age are gripping and deeply felt, Megan is much, much less so. Megan is basically a Lemmiwinks, pushed through her plot line by the urging and instruction of others, proceeding from peril to peril in pursuit of her destiny as someone who has to tell someone else's story. I couldn't even hate her, like I so often hate weak/helpless females in fantasy stories, because there is nothing of her to hate. Her adventures are wonderfully (and sometimes shockingly) described, but then, so were those of a certain gerbil. One hopes she'll develop more in the sequel.

For sequel there shall be. By novel's end, it becomes obvious that these nearly 400 pages have all basically been prologue. And preaching. Lots of preaching in this novel. But it's all in the service of good solid stuff that apparently can't be repeated enough -- give back as much as you take, respect the land and its gifts that make your life possible, treat people as you would be treated -- and the preaching is never really overdone at any one point, and, as I hope I've conveyed by now, really beautifully, even lyrically done. Black Feathers has the feel of myth; it feels old and familiar and well-known even as it also feels fresh and inventive and original. Neat trick, that.

*Megan's story is hardly our only hint that Gordon's specialness is a good thing, of course. The fact that he is being hunted down by the totalitarian Ward people tells us so, as well, but I've chased enough literary red herrings in my day that I no longer feel comfortable accepting obvious villains at face value anymore, generally speaking. Of course, the fact that the two Ward Sheriff's who first come after Gordon are dead spits for Croup and Vandemar lend weight to the idea that the reader is supposed to perceive them as totes evil, which really just tells me that I way overthought my reading, here.

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