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The presence of crows in this story could easily have been replaced by some other countable entity, and yet the corvids that get counted, every day, that get bound into a rhyme, are the perfect metaphor for Brenda’s life, being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.