The Butcher Bird was dropped, impaled on the never to read pile its first time around, not for future consumption — just out of spite — and forgotten rather quickly and not unthankfully so. Even while sporting some blurbage from Cyberpunk don William Gibson and capo Pat Cadigan, my worst fears seemed to becoming reality in the first few chapters, namely, another fringe ultra hip wannabee, smart ass protagonist — complete with the job as a tattoo artist and oh yeah…his sidekick is of course a quip-ready, lesbian version of himself — who together find out reality isn’t what it seems.
Couple that with the first sip into the quantum-chaos looking-glass mug really reminded me of a favorite comic of mine from the early 90’s, Dark Dominion, published by DEFIANT comics created by Jim Shooter and the legendary Steve Ditko (indeed the subtitle of Butcher Bird is A Novel of the Dominion) and you just had a product that completely was pressing the wrongs buttons with me from the beginning. One also has to have to understand, I had recently read the likes of Alex Bledsoe’s debut The Sword Edged Blonde, ran through Butcher’s series, read Morgan’s excellent Black Man, Huston’s Already Dead among some others and while they all represent different levels of quality I just had an overload on the too-cool, snarky, potential goth-idols running around telling me how smooth they are.
What I just described could still have been viewed as a recipe for success if attached to a writer I was familiar with — an Aylett, a Moorcock, a Tarantino — but anytime I’m experiencing a writer for the first time, and I understand Kadrey has previous well thought of credits, and am not familiar with any previous work such an introduction usually makes me think I’m in for another work wading in the shallow end that’s more preoccupied with being trendy and a cultural dumpster-diving noir (because isn’t everything noir these days?) that read like rejected Sin City pitch than actually offering a worthwhile story. That this was a superficial, preliminary, and ultimately baseless assumption makes it more necessary to mention because I think there are some that have this hipster filter. We like cool, and even more than we despise posers, we hate too cool even more.
The second time around — I really enjoyed this mother. The story revolves around a man, Spyder Lee, who after a night at the bar with his best friend Lulu get accosted by what seems to be a demon and is saved by a passing blind woman. After recovering he finds that not only does he wake up to his world, but he finds it inhabited by more than what he used to know.
“Humans and the most numerous animals of the land, sea and air were given one sphere. A second sphere was given to the rarest of creatures — the phoenix, selkies, vampires, barbeques, corrigans, tengus, lamias, rompos, gorgons, volkhs, wyverns, trolls and other exotic beasts. The last realm was left to the most glorious and dangerous inhabitants of the planet: angels and demons.”
He learns more from Lulu who he see’s now is without eyes, who has lived in this world since bargaining with the Black Clerks, sphere-crossing tithe collectors, a supernatural mob crew that watched was a bit too enthusiastic about Saw and is like the Twilight Zone’s Twilight Zone inhabitants. Spyder gets some answers but decides to hunt down his savior of the night before for more information and along the way he gets cursed by the demon who tried to bite his head off before.
Yes, a rather extreme case of the Mondays but during this portion of the novel I started really settling in; enjoying Kadrey’s chaos that viewed our own reality — even if amiably — as the exceptional, little brother who has to wear a helmet around solid objects. The charm of the books is that when ugly calls us ugly our regularly repartee ready protagonist seems to role with it and in a few chapters Spyder went from cheap, stereotypical fringe of society outsider to becoming something more recognizable without changing a beat. Then you realize, It’s not anti-culture, it’s culture, and this the recognizable draw we see in books by the likes of Morgan, Grimwood, or China — it is PKD’s future that we see our path is going to intersect with, not that of Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein, and it is the Spyders and Lulus who will inherit it.
He (Spyder) is not abnormal, he is the reality, a blue collar guy who gets by on his trade, and afterwards throw down drinks with his friends in what is a daily celebration and a simple meeting of shared misery, as that can be seen by the game we see he and Lulu partake in at the bar challenging each other to describe the worst ways to die. Indeed he is not cool at all — he’s a guy who spits off one liners from the mind of a guy who is a lifelong film buff.
We know this guy, some of you are this guy, and you aren’t special at all, indeed your chosen identity is to not be exceptional at all. This is exactly the person you want to watch your back if you have business in hell — the guy and gal that cross the border between our world and Hell and don’t even notice, the kind of people who adjust to madness and are not consumed by it, the daily grind favors no reality. Spyder finds himself accompanying the blind assassin who aided him on a job turned personal quest rationalizing that he wants to become blind to the reality, to forget, like he does at times waking up and thinking his former girlfriend is still with him. The assassin, Shrike, takes on a job to retrieve a book of power for one Madame Cinders — a book that lies in Lucifer’s palace, in the middle of a civil war in Hell.
“They’re the same thing. Fools get themselves cornered. Heroes are just the fools who get out of it” Count Non nodded. “Being a fool might just be your greatest strength.”
I can see this book being accompanied with descriptors like ‘grit’ and ‘edge’ and an examination of the gutter and alleys, and the underbelly of society, and other comparable senseless book-jacket jargon mentioned with the best intentions, and no doubt if this were the 1980’s and I were ten I might even agree the content is consistent with those supposed accolades; however, my read was that of what is essentially a dungeon crawl from my block to hell with today’s average Joe.
And in this it succeeds.
I like Lulu because I know Lulu. She’s your kid sister who is not blood or someone you share a last name with , she’s chosen family, she’s the girl you would really go to hell for, and while we probably run into a few (too many) of those, she’s the one who would actually come with you. What I’m perhaps most thankful for is the keeping of the harping over the lost love interest element to a minimum. Many writers would have made the presence much heavier and frequent (aka Lana-syndrome) than necessary. Anyone that’s a teen or above understand the feelings Spyder carries with him and that it’s a constant presence without it needing to be mentioned on ever other page. One of the best parts of the books is delivered by Primo, a servant of Cinders, and another member of this quest who tells a story of the Raven King and jubilation and the joy in eating one’s family.
All that said, ultimately what probably makes the novel is the Prince of Darkness himself. You won’t be floored as the Devil is possibly one of the few characters who has been utilized in all possible incarnations from Woland, to Twain, every Faust book from Mann to Swanwick and literally hundreds more, but Kadrey’s devil is that friend you have that commits some atrocious crimes but he’s still your boy — the guy you judge by how he does you, not by what he does — and in this novel, it’s not that you just find him amusing, you like this guy.
As mentioned before Butcher Bird’s subtitle is that of “A Novel of the Dominion”, the implication being there may be more stories to be told and while the book itself isn’t striking me as a book that demands to be read, the further adventures of Spyder is not a notion that I find entirely distasteful.
*passes a smoke to Lulu*
A Noh mask wearing bookseller named Bulgarkov, a condo building Lucifer, Orson Welles’s lost film, Lou Ford references, in a fast talking, brisk, fun read — a novelization of a Cage and Derm go to Hell and yes, in the end, it’s not just cool. It’s icy.
** You can also check out a guest blog by Richard Kadrey