Butcher Bird (AKA Butcher Bird: A Novel Of The Dominion) is a Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Fantasy/Whatever other kind of genre has blind universe hopping female assassins killing people with a magical cane-sword by Richard Kadrey, the author a few of other books, a few of which being Sandman Slim series. More on those later on in the review.
I'll try not to spoil the whole darn thing in this first part and will mark spoilers appropriately, but this is one of those books where things don't feel like spoilers, they just feel like stuff happening, and it isn't until later you realize, 'oh hey, that totally gave away the plot'. So I'll do my best, but no promises. The gloves come all the way off in the personal opinion part of the review.
The plot is fairly straightforward. A tattoo artist living in San Francisco by the name of Spyder Lee (no, really), gets attacked while out drinking with his best friend/coworker Lulu Garou (she does the piercings, he does the tats) and her girlfriend Rubi. He gets attacked by what he thinks is a demon. He gets saved from being eaten by the eponymous Butcher Bird, AKA Shrike, AKA the aforementioned blind, dimension-hopping, cane-sword-wielding assassin.
She points out that- yeah, the tattoos he's covered himself in? All the neat-o signs and symbols he dug out of one of his ex-girlfriend's anthropology books? Some of those actually mean stuff, and will attract creepy crawlies to him, such as the Bitru that just attacked him. Then she leaves him to drink while she goes off to be badass somewhere.
The next day, Spyder can See and Hear. Our world is sharing space with two other dimensions, or 'spheres' as they're called, and while a lot of the supernatural stuff can come down to our level and interact with us, humans in sphere one typically cannot see or interact with them. Not so for Spyder.
Everywhere he looks, there are strange creatures running around. The sky is full of angels and airships. There's a griffon picking bugs off itself in the alley. A few people walking around have these weird parasitic bug-leech-things on them, and there's this group of black clad gentlemen ripping people open and rifling through their insides.
Nobody human but Spyder can see any of this until he gets to work and sees his friend, Lulu. Her eyes are missing, as is a whole lot of her face. Her skin is scarred. She is in debt to the Black Clerks, the auditors of the universe who have a habit of making Faustian pacts with people and then coming back later to collect organs and body parts. So Spyder does the brave-stupid thing and instead of letting them take anything else from her, allows them to give him their mark and the promise that they can collect from him on some future date.
Then he goes to find Shrike, as he's pretty sure she can help him.
The rest of the book focuses on him, Shrike, and a few others traveling to Hell (yes, the Hell) to retrieve a magical book for one Madame Cinders, who has leverage over Shrike. Accompanying them is Promo Kosinski, Madame Cinder's butler and a man named Count Non they meet along the way. During the trip, they face Zeppelin flying angels, visit a city made of would-have-beens and lost things, and then finally do get to Hell, where they stumble into a war being waged on Lucifer himself by Spoiler.
Stuff ensues after that.
The Set Up
The way this book is set up, physically, means that in the beginning few chapters, between the ones focusing on Spyder and the plot are ones in italics that sort of explain the background of the world. These are the ones that talk about the Dominions, ancient primordial semi-godlike creatures that live outside of the universe, the concept of the spheres, the shadow creatures, and explains the role the Black Clerks play and how, in general, things from the other spheres think humans are like really annoying rodents without the benefits of being cute and fluffy.
Most of the background stuff is explained up front between the beginning chapters.
It's really good.
It's too damn short.
It feels like a first novel.
And I don't mean, 'this is written badly, the guy must be new' sorts of first novel, but a 'there was going to be a series based on this, wasn't there?' sort of first novel. First book in a series.
It's like Kadrey tried to cram so much interesting stuff into the story, that he wound up only being able to glance over it all in order to keep it the size it was. It feels like maybe there was another book in the works, or maybe this book had an extra two hundred pages to it, but then someone from on high said, 'nope' and it was cut, sliced, diced, and forced into a tight corset in order to trim it down to size.
The shadow-selves, for instance. That's a nifty idea. Seen it before a few times (most notably in Charles DeLint's Newford series, a few stories of which actually focus on the point of view of the shadow in question), and it's a really cool idea, especially the way Kadrey sets it up. His shadow-people can only be created when their casters do something really horrible, like murder, and the shadows represent parts of the caster that the caster really doesn't like.
Sweet! I bet this is going to be a really plot relevant aspect! Like, Spyder (or maybe Shrike) is going to get a shadow, and then it's going to follow them around the whole way, or maybe impersonate him in order to get the group's trust, only to betray them all, or maybe they meet and-
What? It only shows up at the ending? Like, the very very only-a-dozen-or-so-more-pages-to-go ending? And it's basically the Black Clerk's pit bull? Oh. That's kind of disappointing. Especially since it was mentioned practically at the beginning. . .
Or, ooh! That prince guy! Near the beginning, right before they meet Count Non, while they're still in their airship, they get accosted by a ship owned by the "Crown Prince Bel, of the Erragal Clan". They refuse his bribe to give him the book, rather than Cinders, and this royally pisses him off. Before he can do much, however, a group of army angels interrupts them. The Seraphic Brotherhood. They have an airship as well. They also want the book. They start fighting the prince and the prince starts fighting everybody and it results in Count Non saving their tails.
Well hell, those sound really cool! Are those groups going to show up a lot and just harry the group as they go to Hell? Will the group have to take refuge in that prince's land and wind up getting into shenanigans? Are we going to get to see anybody bitch slap an angel or two?
Well, not really. The prince just drops off the planet after that, and while the brotherhood is occasionally mentioned afterwards (like the group arranging people to keep watch at night, or occasionally checking to make sure there aren't), but then they don't really show up until the beginning of the end, right before the group goes into Hell. And even then, it's more of a motivator- "Hoshit, angels are attacking! Into Hell, quick!" than anything plot relevant.
The war in Hell, oddly enough, wasn't built up, but it's pretty much the basis of the climax. It turns out that too big a spoiler not to cover up, so when they show up in Pandemonium after wandering around for a few pages, they're greeted with open arms. Then Shrike's boyfriend shows up with an army, and the Black Clerks show up, and things all go to pot and then stuff happens that I will not say because that would be giving too much away.
Hey, remember how, at the very beginning, Shrike said that the tattoos on Spyder would probably attract more monsters to him? The next day, before he actually gets a good look at Lulu's face and the plot kicks off, there's a few lines where he worries about the people he's tattooed, and the business cards he gives put, which also have some weird symbols. He wonders if more monsters will come after him because of his tattoos, or if other people will start getting attacked because of him.
Yeah. None of that's ever brought up again.
Same thing with a reoccurring gag, where Spyder introduces himself, and people ask if he’s from the Spider Clan. Spyder has no idea what this means and sort of brushes the question off every time its asked.
Again, nothing comes of it.
And then there's the Painted Man.
The character, The Painted Man was mentioned once in a throwaway line in one of the italicized chapters in a list with a few other trickster gods (Loki, Coyote, etc.), and then later mentioned in Hell by one of the spirits attacking Spyder (the spirits were obsessed with life and swamped the group).
Spyder mentions the name to Lucifer, who tells him that the Painted Man is basically a myth about a creature who eats demons for breakfast and could punch a few holes in the universe if he wanted. Spyder thinks about this for a second, and Lucifer flat out tells him, 'No. Just because you are covered in tattoos does not mean you're the painted man. I'd know if he showed up. You couldn't hide that much power from me.'
Yeah, guess who turns out to be the Painted Man? Three guesses, and the first ones don't- it's Spyder. Of course it is. Way to build up that little detail. What gets me is that this one was actually really important to the plot, but it just comes out of left field unless you happen to remember, ‘oh yeah! He was mentioned with Loki and the others thirty or forty chapters ago.’ (This book has very short chapters).
There's a plot point mentioned, and mentioned frequently, that if someone physically looks at Hell, they get stuck there for all eternity. Guess who loses his blindfold not too long after stepping into Hell? And guess who gets her sight back at the exact wrong moment?
However, since spoiler, this is moot.
You guys ever read Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman? I'm not sure about you, but while I liked the book plenty, I always had that niggling little feeling where I sort of wished some things were explained better (one part specifically comes to mind, the part where they cross the bridge and the rat girl disappears and then everybody's all, 'ho hum. That happens sometimes. We all just deal with it'). I always wished that some concepts were maybe explored a little more thoroughly.
Well, this book takes that feeling and ramps it up to eleven.
I want to know about this weirdass world he's built. I want to see all this cool stuff that only gets glanced over and never mentioned again.
The ending only solidifies in my mind that there was supposed to be more to this. The ending is
UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD, PEOPLE
That Spyder beats his shadow self, beats the Black Clerks, beats Shrikes boyfriend's army and saves Hell (hooray?), all by inadvertently absorbing the information in the book. The book itself is about the Dominions and how to bring them into the universe proper, which is what every single fucking person in this book who wanted the book wanted to do. Everybody was hoping to free the Dominions and gain their favor and power.
Lucifer learns a lesson in humility and is totes friends with Spyder, Shrike, and Lulu. The group (sans Satan) goes off to deal with Cinders, the book is destroyed, Shrike vanishes off the face of the planet for a bit to deal with stuff, and while Spyder and Lulu were gone, an angry mob burned down their tattoo/piercing parlor. But it's okay, because the combination of the insurance company's payments and Spyder's new found power incontinence means that they're sitting pretty for a while, at least.
Oh, the power thing? Yeah, just because Spyder has oodles and oodles of new found power doesn't mean he knows the first thing about using it. He falls asleep and dreams of stuff being of fire- and his furniture goes up in flames. He dreams about treasure, and he finds his sock drawer full of gold.
Shrike shows back up. She apologizes for leaving, they have a heart to heart, she promises to teach Spyder how to control his magic and then they mention that- OH HEY. Remember the Dominions? Big powerful eldritch abominations that Spyder let loose into the universe? They're still out there, and they're probably going to be causing trouble. Someone should really deal with that. . .
And thus the story ends with Spyder and Shrike making plans to travel the multiverse- I mean, 'spheres' together.
Don't you dare tell me there wasn't going to be a sequel before someone pooh-poohed it, because that couldn't be a bigger sequel hook if the pages of that last chapter were pasted onto an actual giant fishing hook.
Hell, the full title is actually Butcher Bird: A Novel Of The Dominion! Why call if that if there wasn't going to be a few other novels around?
I love the Sandman Slim books. At the time of this writing, there are three. This next bit will make no sense to you whatsoever unless you've already read them. If you haven't, just skip over this.
This book is the spiritual precursor to the Sandman Slim novels. Seriously. Only it's a hell of a lot lighter and fluffier compared to Sandman Slims dark, gritty hellfire-and-alcohol feel.
Stark has a black bladed knife that once belonged to a powerful demon (Azazel) that can do pretty much anything, cut through pretty much everything, and kill hellions? Spyder has a black bladed knife that once belonged to a demon named Abaddon that can do all that.
Stark has a magic key inside him that can do cool shit? Not as cool, but Shrike has a key magically infused into her blood by Cinders that will let her get to where the book is locked up. (Unlike Stark's key, Shrike's key is designed to kill her if she doesn't get the book in time. Cinders is a bitch.)
Both stories have a human waging war (and doing a fairly good job of it!) on hell? Check.
Lucifer is portrayed as a manipulative bastard who is still a fairly sympathetic character who just nudges humanity to do evil on its own? Check. (Granted, he's much nicer in this one than he was in the Sandman Slim ones).
Both characters get a nickname they don't know the meaning of at first, but instills fear in the hearts of bogeymen? Check.
I could go on.
Also, this might mean nothing, but it was one of the first things I noticed. Promo Kosinski. Like, the Doc Kinski from Sandman Slim. Heh.
Despite the entirely bitchy tone of this review, I did like this book. Because of neat ideas it presented, the likable characters (seriously, they're all really likable. Except for the ones who delve into cartoon villainy. But all the main characters are fun/funny and you want to see more of them), and, again, the really cool world that never gets (in my opinion) fully explored.
When the biggest complaint is 'I wish there was more' then I guess you can chalk that up as an author win.
Go read this book, if I haven’t totally spoiled everything for you. Actually, go read it anyways, because there’s still loads more I didn’t even touch that was really super awesome.
Read the Sandman Slim books while you’re at it.