It is the Bright Day, a time long generations hence, when a peace has descended across the world.
In each era, a child shall be chosen. Their task is to find a dark messiah known only as the Crowman. But is he our saviour – or the final incarnation of evil?
I hadn’t really paid attention to Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers until Angry Robot revealed its cover and it intrigued me enough to check out the synopsis again. At which point it really grabbed my attention and I was pleased to get my hands on an ARC. Black Feathers is both an apocalyptic tale and a post-apocalyptic narrative, due to the two temporal strands that are woven together. I found myself equally caught up in both of them and I couldn’t tell you which my favourite story arc was.
The apocalyptic strand of the story tells us of the life of Gordon Black. He is born in troubled times, as the earth is breaking down and global society is slowly being taken over by a totalitarian party called the Ward, that has shades of the Nazi party and takes corporate greed and consumerism as its lead ideologies. From the start there is something special about Gordon, who is seemingly always watched over by crows, rooks and other corvids. A sensitive child given to night terrors, he grows into manhood in a world that is slowly turning evermore nightmarish. What makes it even more disturbing is that Gordon is born in the year 2000 and some of the tale plays out in our current day. And while a lot of the elements enabling the complete break-down of society aren’t as far along in truth as they are in the book, many of the things D’Lacey uses as indicators of the coming end are reflected in our world. The fact that as I write this we’ve just had the coldest Easter since 1964, doesn’t really help to optimistically dismiss D’Lacey’s vision as complete fiction. When Gordon reaches the age of thirteen, everything falls completely apart and the earth seemingly rebels and in a series of catastrophic natural disasters, mixing deluging rains, earthquakes, mudslides and everything else she can throw at humanity, wipes out a large portion of the earth’s inhabitants, ending society as we known it. We follow Gordon from birth to this point of collapse in relatively quick jumps through a series of visions and dreams of the protagonist of the post-apocalyptic strand. But from the moment that Gordon’s world collapses, which is a little before the actual apocalypse, we follow him without great leaps of time between his sequences. Gordon develops from a young and sheltered boy to a young man who has to confront the harsh reality of the world around him. D’Lacey manages to take away Gordon’s innocence without taking away his gentleness. At times he was perhaps a little too Zen in his reactions, but in the context of his story this makes sense and as such isn’t a problem. We leave him as he comes into his own and sets off on his quest renewed and even hopeful. D’Lacey takes both Gordon and the reader to the depths of despair and existential angst, but leaves them on the road to a new beginning, even if we’re not quite sure what that beginning will look like.
The post-apocalyptic strand shows us what Gordon’s world has come to generations later. In this future, where humanity has returned to the land and worships Mother Earth and the Great Spirit, we follow Megan, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, who encounters the legendary Crowman in the forest. This encounter signals an ability that is rare – to communicate with the Crowman – and as a result she is apprenticed to Mr Keeper, her village’s lore keeper We follow her visions and through them witness Gordon’s tale and see how the cult develops. During her apprenticeship and the quests involved, Megan discovers her strength and her purpose. Her world is low-tech and society has returned to older ways, become more isolated. The description of the surrounding countryside, especially the abandoned city, is chilling and one wonders how many of these abandoned places are dotted around the planet. It did make me wonder about the complete change in society in such a seemingly short time, as there are still rusting cars in the city, which given that the story is set in Great Britain, seems to rule out that more than twenty-five to fifty years have gone by. Then again the cataclysmic forces that Mother Earth unleashed upon the world may have caused British weather to change as well, which might account for the cars not being completely rusted away.
Of course Gordon and Megan don’t exist in a vacuum; they are surrounded by supporting characters. Gordon encounters more different people that play a larger role in the narrative, Megan’s story and life is far more isolated than Gordon’s is, mostly due to the decrease in population and the fact that society has gone back to a simpler way of living and motorised transport has disappeared. In both strands there are other points of view we follow. But the ones that stand out were Knowles’ short sequences and the chapters from the point of view of the two Ward agents, who are singularly unpleasant chaps. Why these three resonated so much with me is largely due to the Ward’s eerie reflection of such organisations as the Stasi and particularly the SS. For someone raised on WWII narratives the spectre of the return of such a party on a world-wide scale is frightening and the fact that nobody in Gordon’s timeline was aware enough or powerful enough to stop it was disquieting. D’Lacey succeeds in extrapolating current political trends – more and more nationalistic parties, the growing influence of large corporations – and blends them into a horrifying reality that actually makes you cheer Mother Earth for getting rid of them.
D’Lacey’s writing is really good, with his prose at times shifting to the poetic. The intertwined strands of the two timelines told in the differing perspectives of past (Gordon) and present (Megan) make for an easily followed narrative. There are elements of horror to Black Feathers, both in the way the apocalypse is portrayed and the way humanity treats each other. D’Lacey seemingly has a clear message about how we treat our planet and each other and the long term consequences of this treatment. But while it’s never absent, this ecological warning never comes across as preachy.
In Black Feathers D’Lacey has created a compelling narrative and an amazing adventure. I was swept away both Gordon’s and Megan’s story and I found myself pondering them and their world between the times I could sit down to continue their story. I really enjoyed the book and I’m looking forward to returning to their stories and discovering how they link up in the concluding volume of this duology.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.