Review of Black Feathers by

Book cover for Black Feathers

This is an odd book. I'm pretty sure it’s good, but I’m not sure I liked it. It took me far longer to read Black Feathers than I usually take to read any book. Part of that was because I spent more time focused on other things over the past few weeks. Most of it, I think was avoidance. Joseph D’Lacey’s writing is good; don’t get me wrong. But I was never in a hurry to return to this world.

Black Feathers is an amalgam of older-style dystopian YA of The Giver’s generation and new-style dystopian YA. I’m using these terms loosely only to make the distinction that, in the recent renaissance of YA and its emphasis on dystopias, authors have been experimenting with how to present “the end of the world.” D’Lacey’s storytelling is reminiscent, in many respects, of the simplistic, allegorical style of The Giver, with people named things like The Keeper, and an emphatic call to respect the land. However, he departs from the usual post-apocalyptic formula of having the apocalypse long in the past. Through a dual narrative, he depicts the end of the world even as he shows how, generations later, one young woman apparently has the ability to begin humanity’s healing process proper.

My reservations about this novel stem more from my personal reaction to D’Lacey’s style rather than any perceived problems with the writing or story. This verges on fantasy horror, or maybe more accurately, a kind of fantasy suspense—think Stephen King at his most mythological, or perhaps Tim Powers. And those authors don’t do it for me. They have an intense fascination with the psychology of broken characters and explore those psychologies by (sometimes literally) putting those characters through hell. I’ll leave that to Thomas Hardy, please. Basically what I’m saying is that if you are a King or Powers fan, you will probably get more enjoyment from this book than me, and the rest of this review might not be helpful (although there’s plenty I liked).

For example, the dual narrative structure works very well here. D’Lacey weaves the parallel times together deftly, often switching between them in media res with little in the way of a break. The stark juxtaposition between a world falling apart and a world broken beyond recognition means this isn’t as confusing as it would otherwise be. However, I did find it difficult to develop much of an attachment to Megan.

Both Megan and Gordon are, alas, Chosen Ones in a very standard mould. The Keeper quite literally goes up to Megan’s parents and gives them a textbook speech about how the literal fate of humanity lies in her hands—no pressure! Alas, Megan never crystallizes for me as a character with much agency. She follows, and while she occasionally drags her heels or questions, she is a reactionary protagonist. The story propels her, instead of the other way around.

Gordon is somewhat different in that respect: he keeps moving forward. So it is easier to enjoy his narrative (though “enjoy” probably isn’t the best word—the things he experiences are pretty bleak! Gordon is a fugitive—and far too young to be expected to survive on his own, let alone undergo these ordeals. But D’Lacey pulls no punches in his portrayal of an England falling apart from crisis after crisis. It is, in fact, all very depressing … and given the levels of denial from politicians of many countries, it resonates far too much with our current political climate.

The novel is all about the search for the Crowman. This is a mythical figure, an urban legend in Gordon’s time and simply a legend in Megan’s. Both protagonists seek the Crowman in their own way. D’Lacey sets up the Crowman as a kind of Luciferian figure—not so much the evil Devil as the Fallen Angel, the Lightbringer. In this story, the Crowman is an omen of an Earth dangerously out of balance. Although this refers in part to phenomena such as global warming, D’Lacey also makes it clear that part of this balance comes from the way humans interact with each other.

Black Feathers is an attempt at a kind of contemporary fairy tale or myth, and I love that. D’Lacey anticipates the way people of the future might talk about our society if we are the progenitors of their fallen state. At times, the level of detail and verbosity of his prose makes for some thorny, slow-going reading—there are very few pages of snappy dialogue in this book, and lots of huge paragraphs of description and introspection. But even if I don’t particularly like the end result, I appreciate that it is a cohesive, unified story with very little in the way of disappointing or untidy ends. I probably won’t read the sequel, but I don’t regret reading this book. There are just other books I’m sure I would enjoy more—whereas if this sounds like your cup of tea, then you should probably check it out.

Engagement

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