|cover art by Don Dos Santos|
Here's another book that's been sitting on my shelf for a while: Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey (Night Shade Books, 2007). I bought it when Borders book store was going out of business, right before the end when everything that was left was on sale for a dollar. For that price, I decided to rescue it from the piles of Tori Spelling's memoirs and unwanted romances littering the sale tables. It has the kind of cover that says the book with either be awesome or it will suck...wanna take the risk?
After the first few pages, I wasn't sure I should have. The novel begins with two of the main characters, Spyder and Lulu, sitting in a bar debating the worst way to die. At one point, Lulu says: "Know what would really suck? Being force fed a bucket full of black widows."
Hoo boy...do I trust my brain with a writer who can think of something that gruesome? As it turns out, I'm glad I did.
Butcher Bird is a rather dark fantasy novel that presents the world as something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Kind of like this:
Most of us are lucky enough that we don't see what's actually there. Our protagonist, a tattoo artist named Spyder Lee, finds that his luck has run out after he has a scuffle with a demon in a back alley. He wakes up the next morning and discovers that the world is filled with massively weird, and frequently disgusting, creatures. Everywhere he looks there are angels, demons, monsters, totems covered with decapitated heads and other unnerving stuff.
After a run-in with the organ-stealing Black Clerks, who look like businessmen with other people's faces stapled over their own, he searches for the woman who helped him in the alley, a blind assassin named Shrike. An enigmatic beauty with a tragic past (of course), Shrike convinces him that his best bet is to help her with her next assignment.
The two travel by magic to Alexandria, to meet the client, Miss Cinders, a rotting heap of animated flesh who cultivates carnivorous orchids. This woman wants them to go to Hell to liberate a stolen book, which is so powerful and dangerous that if it falls into the wrong hands, all the Spheres will suffer a crap-ton of trouble. (Making me think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Xander says that he never expected to have to use the plural of "Apocalypse.")
At this point, you are probably either thinking, "That sounds kind of cool" or "That is way too weird for me." If the latter, then it is safe to say that you are unlikely to enjoy this book. It's actually a lot weirder than that, but I don't want to discuss the plot any more, because one of the things I liked best about Butcher Bird was the sheer inventiveness and wondering what on earth the author would do next.
Despite my prediction, the book neither sucked, nor was it awesome. Parts of it hit the awesome range, but on the whole, I found it merely good.
What I liked:
1. Kadrey's crazy imagination. My problem, as a reader, is that after a few hundred books in a genre, most new titles have a "been there, read that" quality to them. It's so hard to find something that's fresh. Well, I have never read anything like Butcher Bird. I was surprised over and over with this book. That was exciting.
2. There were some plot twists that actually surprised me. That almost never happens to me anymore. But Kadrey did it.
3. Occasionally, the book hit on something genuinely insightful. To me, the ultimate purpose of literature is to shed a bit of light on the human condition. I don't necessarily want to read serious stuff all the time, and plain old entertainment is fun, but it's forgettable. A really good book connects the dots a bit, or makes me feel less alone, or even just makes me think, "Yeah, a real person would do that." Butcher Bird hits that note a few times, and the author is even smart enough not to belabor the point. He trusts us to "get" it.
4. It's well written. Honestly, after some of the crimes against good writing I've had to endure in published books lately, when I come across someone who has actually paid attention to their craft, and seems to understand sentence structure, pacing, dialogue, the importance of showing not telling, etc., I almost want to arrange a ticker tape parade in their honor.
What I didn't like:
1. Sometimes, it felt like the author was trying too hard to be witty or shocking. For example, after a few really great passages, there'd usually be a tacky one-liner or some gratuitous crudity in the dialogue.
This is related to my next quibble:
2. All the pop cultural references. It was non-stop. At times I wanted to say, "Look, I'm sure you're very hip and smart, but I don't think that people are going to be blurting out these forced witticisms and hipster cliches right at this moment...you are trying too hard to impress me."
Maybe this kind of thing works better in movies than in print. Or maybe I'm just not "hip" enough to appreciate it. But time and again, those "witty" quips and one-liners pulled me out of the story, and into unhappy reader land.
3. I was disappointed in the character of Shrike. I was hoping for a real badass, and she wasn't. (The princess backstory...that was painful.)
I did enjoy this book. It's not for everyone, but fans of dark and weird fantasy will probably like it. Some associations that came to mind while I was reading include the novels of Neil Gaiman, Caitlin Kiernan and Tanith Lee, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, for some reason, the movie Time Bandits.
And now...the bird tie-in:
There were no actual birds in this novel. The character Shrike, the "Butcher Bird," refers to the real-world species of shrikes, small carnivorous birds that catch small lizards, rodents and insects and impale them on spikes for future delectation. I am very fond of shrikes...I even think they're cute.
From the novel:
"I'm sometimes called Blind Shrike", she said. "Sometimes Butcher Bird."
"Why do you carry the name of a harmless little hatchling?"
"The shrike is a hunter, Madame, though a diminutive one. So am I. The shrike skewers its prey on thorns and continues to hunt. Like the shrike, I hunt until the hunt is over. The name was given to me by those who've seen my skill."
Has anyone else read Butcher Bird? Any other fans of dark fantasy out there?