Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales, edited by Ellen Datlow

Black Feathers lives more in the horror end of the spectrum than sff, however some of the stories are by well-known sff writers, including Seanan McGuire and Pat Cadigan, so when I saw it at my public library I decided to give it a shot.  The stories are loosely connected by the presence of birds, as would be expected, but also by a sense of of impending horror, like a murder of crows lit on a harvested field on an overcast day.  Some stories, like Alison Littlewood’s “The Orphan Bird” dip more deeply into true horror, while Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me” is more dark comedy that relies on cultural consciousness of mythology and popular media.

All the stories in this anthology, though, were well-written, however the standouts were definitely Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids,” Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace,” and Cadigan’s aforementioned story.  “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” is the second McGuire-authored piece of short fiction I’ve consumed this year, and both have been some of the most densely-plotted stories I’ve encountered.  McGuire’s characters reveal so much about themselves with so little active description on her part that it is almost as if the reader is directly absorbing the story rather than having to physically read it.  The protagonist, as it were, of this story is a teenage girl who I interpreted as being on the autism spectrum, who has developed coping mechanisms for when she has to deal with people who are unable to empathize with her way of experiencing the world, but who is also acutely aware of how the world could be, and of the constant  cultural requirement that she be a willing participant in making those people feel more comfortable around her.  And of her finally reaching a breaking point.

The presence of crows in this story could easily have been replaced by some other countable entity, and yet the corvids that get counted, every day, that get bound into a rhyme, are the perfect metaphor for Brenda’s life, being regarded as something other than human by her semi-abusive stepfather, as unfeeling and cold by her teachers and peers, but as something worthwhile and magical, as all individual humans are, by her grandmother and mother.  Ultimately this is a story about order and chaos, and McGuire’s prose binds the two together so artfully, so subtly, that the ending, though in many ways it could have been guessed at, is a complete surprise.  McGuire has a way of developing character and plot together, through each other, that makes her short fiction, as I said earlier, particularly dense, but in a satisfying way.

If you read no other story from this anthology, be sure to read Pat Cadigan’s.  Her short fiction reminds me a lot of Connie Willis’–an ironic self-awareness and a sharp eye for coincidence–yet with a piercing sense of just how complicated life can be.  “A Little Bird Told Me” is a story about dying, told by someone who, just for now, can’t die.  With echoes of Dante’s Inferno and a clear stream of world-weary prose laced elegantly with the pure heart of a science fiction writer’s simultaneous love and suspicion of technology, this story is a tantalizing glimpse into a world too much like our own, if we were living in a tv series of our own lives.  The themes are reminiscent of that long-ago and short-lived series Dead Like Me, inscrutable bureaucracy and all.

A great anthology for those who love their fantasy stretching towards horror, and vice versa, Black Feathers is for anyone looking for a side of wonderful with their weird.

The Family Plot, by Cherie Priest

Dahlia Dutton approaches every salvage job like a transplant doctor determined to give sick people a second chance—with reverence for the gifts each decrepit house has to offer, each beautiful piece for which she finds a new home.  Dahlia knows each old house she has to take apart has a soul, a living presence. She just never expected the kind of presence she encounters in the old Withrow property, planted at the foot of the mountains just outside of Chattanooga.

Family secrets are always the worst kind, and on top of dealing with a creepy old house that alternately seems to want to kill her and protect her, Dahlia has to deal with her own family history and try to get as much salvage as she can in three days in order to save the family business from irretrievable debt.  Priest gets the interpersonal and supernatural tensions just right, strewing clues and false trails aplenty to keep the reader in suspense for the whole ride.

The setting is gorgeous and evocative, the premise one that can’t help but appeal to readers in an age of endlessly looping DIY and fixer-upper media.   Priest juxtaposes modern technology and family nostalgia in layer after layer that keeps the reader wondering what is the greater horror—a hundred year old secret or the ones that keep festering right below the surface of this seemingly easy-going family business in the here and now.

Anyone looking for a supernatural thriller should pick up The Family Plot immediately. The old house and family secrets elements are sure to appeal to anyone who loves gothic settings.  Readers who enjoy multiple levels of mystery and suspense will find much to love in this novel.

Without Light or Guide, by T. Frohock

Without Light or Guide picks up soon
after the events of In Midnight’s Silence,
after Diago has rescued his son from Moloch, ruler of the daimons, who wishes
to use young Rafael for his own empowerment.  Diago and his husband Miquel begin to put their lives in
order with the addition of Rafael, while trying to get to the bottom of the
conflict between the angels, daimons, and angel-born Nefilim to whom they are
both sworn.

Part
1930’s noir, part urban fantasy, Without
Light or Guide
explores human pain in all its facets, and the many forms
that healing can take.  Diago has
doubted himself for so long after the events of his first life that even though
he looks for mercy for others in their reincarnations, he reserves none for
himself.  This time, he has to deal
with the suspicion and even open hostility of other Nefilim while attempting to
solve a series of murders—and the victims have direct connections to him.  As the clues point towards a greater
game being played than just conflict between angels and daimons, Diago must
learn to trust himself again in order to face the next attack from Moloch, who
has only been weakened, not defeated.

Diago’s
humanity, and indeed that of all the Nefilim the reader encounters, is what
drives this story.  Frohock draws a
definitive line between the mortals and immortals, then skillfully blurs it,
allowing the reader to fall into it headfirst only to be brought up short with
the delightfully horrific realization that, no, these are not humans; though
they may make attempts to spare humans when it’s convenient, the lives of
mortals are not a priority.  Frohock’s
use of music as magic is a perfect example: music is both commonplace and
transcendent as a human endeavor, and yet when the Nefilim use it, it becomes
something more altogether—something that can kill or heal at will, and beguile
mortals to turn them into pawns in a greater game.

Readers
of urban fantasy and magical realism will enjoy the way Frohock blends myth,
reality, and her own blend of magic to create a unique fantasy world.  For those who like a historical,
alt-universe this series firmly places the story within its real-world setting,
all the while hinting at a much more sinister world history than we were taught
in school.  Any reader of fantasy
drawn to character-driven stories, will surely find much to love in Without Light or Guide and its
co-volumes.

Falling in Love with Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

Falling
In Love With Hominids
is a collection of short stories
published during an eight to ten-year span, and published in various journals
and anthologies.  The stories are
of disparate themes, but unified by a general fascination with humans and
humanity, and take many forms. 
Some stories are quite short meditations on a singular event or topic,
while others show a longer character arc. 
Hopkinson’s stories are never written in a vacuum, however, and all
feature vividly realized worlds, often with a range of flora and fauna—some
even using them as characters.

Of
the more interesting aspects of the collection are Hopkinson’s short prefaces
to each story, which tell the reader a little about when the story was written,
and what the inspiration was for it. 
Getting this rare glimpse into an author’s process is fascinating, and
speaks to Hopkinson’s genius as a writer. 
“The Easthound” is a dystopic look at what happens when a mysterious
disease begins taking all the adults. 
Teenagers and children have to look out for themselves, staving off the
loneliness and fear of their situation by playing games and singing songs.  From a simple story idea to its grim
conclusion, “The Easthound” is an eerie look at notions of safety and
civilization.

An
orchid becomes the protagonist in “A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog,” where the teller
is an underground horticulturalist and her favorite orchid takes on a life of
its own, with motivations and survival strategies far beyond the capabilities
of your average flower.  And in
“Shift,” the tale of Caliban made famous by William Shakespeare in The Tempest moves through time and
becomes a protagonist in his own right, joined by his mother and sister as he
tries to find his identity through falling in love with women in the modern
world. 

Hopkinson
thrives on subverting traditional texts and re-centering cultural focus from
traditional protagonists and traditional Western settings.  Even stories set in North America have
a foreign feel, as though the ghosts of many different people are seeping
through.  Readers not afraid to
confront, or be confronted by, uncomfortable characters or situations will
enjoy the immense imagination and wonder that Hopkinson puts into each
story.  She writes with a easy
style that keeps engaged and wondering until the end.  Readers who enjoy a bit of horror in their fantasy will be
intrigued by the way that Hopkinson doesn’t shy away from the darker side of
human nature.  And of course,
anyone who has read any of Hopkinson’s novels will love this collection.  If not, get a taste of her talent, and
then check out some of her novels!