Butcher Bird

I first heard about Richard Kadrey on Twitter, probably during #followfriday. I like to keep track of Bay Area writers so when I found out he had a book out through local independent publisher Night Shade books, I added it to my library wishlist right away.

The first thing I noticed about Butcher Bird was that it had a classic Night Shade cover; perfect Dan Dos Santos art to match the story inside and a lovely design to frame it. The author’s picture on the inside flap was a little less promising: Kadrey posing in leather with black nail polish and a cigarette, trying a little too hard maybe, and unfortunately looking like it was taken in 1995. Which to be fair, it probably was.

Kadrey apparently started his writing career in cyberpunk with some well-received novels, and certainly his interests on and off the page seem firmly planted amongst the tattoo, fetish and transgressive subcultures with which San Francisco is so well populated. Butcher Bird, however, is a change of pace from his previous books — it’s a modern urban fantasy steeped in mythology and theologies.

The story opens with our protagonist, Spyder, a tattoo artist with a shop in the Haight, drinking in a bar in the Mission with Lulu, who runs her piercing studio out of the same storefront. The language and characters feel pretty fun right off the bat, but the real story begins when Spyder has a run-in with a Demon outside a bar and suddenly starts seeing things no one else around him seems to notice. Harpies, Demons and Gargoyles roam the streets, giant airships and balloons float overhead, and uncanny men dressed all in black steal the very flesh off of hapless souls as the general population goes about their daily business blissfully unaware of any reality but their own.

It turns out there are four spheres of reality that exist independent from the human world and which contain Demons, Angels and all manner of mythological beasties. Although we cannot see them, they can see us just fine and their spheres interact at all points with our world and affect our daily lives. Once the scales have fallen from his eyes, poor Spyder’s existence quickly becomes bewildering and nearly unbearable. He cannot unsee the madness around him, and in turn it starts taking an unhealthy interest in him as well.

Aside from the bar in the Mission and the shop in the Haight, the other stop in the San Francisco tour is an altered version of Fisherman’s Wharf which exists out of time and reality and is a gateway which Spyder eventually and reluctantly uses to travel all the way to Hell in order to resolve his new situation. He tries to enlist the help of the title character, Blind Shrike known also as theButcher Bird, but instead he becomes involved in conflicts and battles far beyond the scope of his own fairly straightforward quest for normalcy.

One of the nice things about the story is that Spyder is a believably reluctant hero. His acts of gallantry and courage are drawn equally from bravado and lust, and at the outset he is utterly uninterested in anything but becoming blind again and forgetting all about the things he has seen. And although he does eventually develop into a useful and competent member of the party that travels to Hell, the progress is limited and believable. His travelling companions are all equally interesting and feel distinct and real, with some nice surprises along the way. Likewise the villains don’t feel generic, and their various motivations make Butcher Bird’s world feel large and complex.

But most of all, the world that Kadrey has constructed, particularly his vision of Hell, is surreal and wonderful. Someplace between a Bosch triptych and a Vertigo comic, it’s grotesque and organic and quite funny in places. Kadrey’s Hell is not the familiar Victorian fire and brimstone but an ugly and alien landscape, at once Medieval and industrial, that feels both surreal and familiar.

Although there is no indication that the book is part of a series other than the subtitle “A Novel of the Dominion,” it feels as though it could very well be, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel or even something focusing on another character within the same universe.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #95, October 2009