For a book in which very little actually happens in terms of plot development, Black Feathers was a fantastic read. It's the story of twin journeys, separated by untold years, and intersecting at the moment of the apocalypse which lies between them. What Joseph D'Lacey has crafted here is a story that's equal parts Stephen King and Robert McCammon, but with an environmental message at its heart, as opposed to a spiritual one. It's dark and it's grim, but it's also magical . . . wondrous, even.
The plot, as I mentioned, is deceptively simple. On the one hand you have a young boy by the name of Gordon Black, feeling from the martial law brutality of The Ward, and searching for a mysterious, messianic figure known only as The Crowman. On the other hand you have a young woman by the name of Megan Maurice, apprenticing herself to the village Keeper, and searching for the young boy from her dreams . . . who may just be The Crowman. Gordon's is a tale of apocalyptic horror, a struggle for survival in a world that is rapidly approaching its end. Megan's is a tale of almost epic fantasy, a coming of age story marked by dreams, prophecies, and magic.
Similarly, the world-building is just as simple, enough to set the stage and ground our expectations, but not to overwhelm the characters at its heart. We see a world dying around Gordon, marked by food shortages, civil wars, and environmental catastrophes - all of which takes place off the page. We see a world reborn around Megan, marked by medieval like struggles for survival, with only the barest glimpses of the world left behind. It's a smart move, with the subtlety of the landscape making the ruined city of the story's final set-piece work so well.
This is primarily a character study, which is fine because both Gordon and Megan are such strong, well-developed characters. They're authentic in terms of their age portrayal, making their accelerated maturity that much more convincing. Neither is convinced they are anything special, and neither feels the need to step up and achieve any sort of heroic deeds. They are young and vulnerable, but with a core of strength that is only revealed through conflict and challenge. Both are likeable characters as well, children you desperately want to protect, even though you know you have to let go . . . to let them find their shared destiny.
As for the men of The Ward, they are appropriately sinister, single-minded, and religiously dedicated to their cause. They do seem as if they may actually be intent upon saving the world, but only so that they can control everything in it and about it. These are men for whom torture begins with pain and disfigurement, merely for the sake of making their subjects uncomfortable, long before any sort of questioning begins. They're also a bit comic, in a morbid, black-humour sort of way, and in the most unexpected moments.
It's a great read, well-told, with a narrative style that flows quickly and easily. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter, and kept finding it harder and harder to put the book down. There's a great sense of mystery to the story, one that is guaranteed to keep readers coming back for the second volume. I suspect it will be a very different story, with the world-building established and coming-of-age element already covered, but I'm anxious to see how it all gets resolved.
Published March 26th 2013 by Angry Robot
Paperback, 393 pages