Black Feathers is a modern fantasy set in two epochs: the Black Dawn, a time of environmental apocalypse, and generations into the future in its aftermath, the Bright Day.---
In each era, a child undertakes a perilous journey to find a dark messiah known as The Crowman. In their hands lies the fate of the planet as they attempt to discover whether The Crowman is our saviour… or the final incarnation of evil. (Synopsis from Goodreads)
Black Feathers is the first in a dark fantasy trilogy from horror writer Joseph D’Lacey. It has a very interesting setting, being split between two time periods, neither of which is very common in fantasy, and the combination of the two seemed quite unusual to me. There’s a modern-day pre-apocalyptic Britain. Whereas post-apocalypse is a well-trodden sub-genre, the actual build up and early days of the end times is much less common, perhaps featuring more in the thriller genre than fantasy. This setting in Black Feathers had elements of familiar disaster stories, but the apocalypse here is not sudden and obliterating; it’s much subtler, creeping up on civilisation and killing it slowly. It’s actually quite disturbing in its intensity and realism – more than any other apocalypse in fiction this one felt to me like it really could happen, or is perhaps already happening.
These are the present day sections of the novel, which are actually told in past-tense. The other sections are set in the future in present tense, post apocalypse but far enough ahead that civilisation now lives as normal, albeit in a less numerous and more rural and at-peace-with-the-land state. In this sense, Joseph D’Lacey is telling the story of an apocalypse in a more literal sense of the word – an uncovering and a change, a transition from one state of living to another rather than the end of everything. It’s not just a story of the end of the world as we know it, but its decline – the why, and the effect it has on people – as well as a story of the world that exists beyond it.
I thought both these settings were very interesting, and the inclusion of subtle magic (mainly in the future setting), a well-created sense of folklore, and prophecies of doom all made the world of this book a really memorable one. The author has an amazing ability to evoke a dark, tense and brooding atmosphere, as if there is always someone watching, something waiting, or disaster about to strike. There were points where the tension was so thick it felt like the characters must have trouble breathing. And over everything there’s a strong sense of menace, of some kind of lurking intent.
This feeling ties in well with the mythology of the Crowman in the story. What is this mysterious being – a man, or something else? What does he want, and is he here to save the world or to destroy it? Is he evil or good, or something beyond either? Although the reader sees events through the eyes of two children who are searching for the Crownman, who both have strong reasons to believe that he will help them and the world, it’s still impossible to say whether the Crowman is really something good. The figure is creepy, his folklore is creepy, and events, particularly towards the end of the book, left me questioning whether we are seeing the story of some kind of manipulating devil-creature after all. This was well done, complementing the story and the atmosphere, and leaving a sense of mystery.
The book did have some problems for me, the main one being that there were sections that felt as if they dragged for too long with very little happening. It’s a very slow-moving story, and at points this frustrated me slightly, particularly the more repetitive aspects – Gordon walks for a while and the section ends with him determined to find the Crowman, then in the next section Gordon walks some more and the section ends with him determined to find the Crowman, etc. There were times when all either Megan or Gordon were doing was walking and thinking, which I would have preferred to be cut a bit shorter.
However, having said that, Joseph D’Lacey’s writing style is beautiful and always a joy to read, with the dryer sections lifted by some wonderful imagery. I also found both Megan and Gordon to be very intriguing characters who grow a lot through the course of the novel. The parallels between the two were clever, as if they were mirror images of each other, or driven by fate to repeat the endless cycle of the past. This drew the two storylines together, helping to keep all aspects of the story feeling relevant. I found myself wondering a lot about where each character was heading – at points Gordon seems to be choosing a rather dark path, and there is clearly more to Megan’s story than we have been told.
The book has some strong messages about the way humans interact with their environment and the way we treat the Earth. The apocalypse is not brought on by some kind of freak accident, but through the incessant build-up of human belligerence, selfishness and greed. The author does a great job of showing that it is people who are the true horror – the way they treat both the world and each other – and most of the true danger in the book (particularly to Gordon) comes from other survivors. I’m not sure that returning to such a rural, pre-industrial form of life is necessary to solve our environmental and social issues, but I do think the themes in this story are very important ones, and that they were handled well by the author. This is certainly a relevant book.
In the last stage of the book the pace really speeds up and some major changes begin to happen. An even greater sense of magic and the supernatural comes in, and although it had felt to me like the story was stalling a little by this point, now it really gripped hard and didn’t let go until the end. By now the reader will have a lot of questions and expectations for the next books, and there’s a sense that both Megan’s and Gordon’s stories will move in surprising directions.
With memorable settings, vivid writing and important themes, Black Feathers is an extremely atmospheric and thought-provoking read.
Thank you to Angry Robot and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.