do Birds cry?
Reviews of "London Calling" by Philip A. Suggars and "Kakashi & Crow" by Megan Fennell
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Does turning into a bird ever help? This question has had long legs in modern speculative fiction. Merlin turned T.H. White’s young King Arthur into a bird in an effort to impart some wisdom. The lessons of polymorphism were so difficult and opaque that T.H. White wrote a whole other book revisiting Merlin’s shape-shifting lessons in an attempt to redeem Arthur (The Book of Merlin, published posthumously in 1977). Ged, The Wizard of Earth Sea, would turn into a hawk occasionally, but he also got stuck in bird form. So he learned to avoid turning into a bird. In the first issue of "Excursions from the Citadel" our flagship story, “Winged Migration” dealt with this very question of giving up your arms for wings. Therefore, I ask you, why have these ornithological transformation been such a stalwart part of fantasy literature? Is there a common theme to the use of these bird morphs in storytelling?
The two stories I am reviewing today look very similar when the setting and facts of the story are reviewed. Both stories are modern fantasy tales that presume that there is a fey world of the supernatural beings existing just beneath the surface of our present day reality. Both the main characters are loners that start the story without a strong connection to any present day person or institution, and of course, both of the main characters turn into birds.
“London Calling” by Phillip A. Suggars was published in the February 20th issue of Strange Horizons. The story imagines that London itself is a supernatural entity with a voice, and desires beyond being a densely populated city. London wants to see the ocean. So Suggars’s London reaches out, or calls out, to whoever is listening. The only person to answer London’s call is a young woman named Ingrid. We are introduced to Ingrid as follows.
“Ingrid swayed on the ledge of the tower blocks roof with her back to the drop, her arms outstretched and her eyes shut. The concrete crackled under her boots. Vertigo tickled the pit of her stomach and she sensed the ground, patient and hungry far below.
The overwhelming compulsion to jump jellied her legs. For an instant she imagined herself spinning downwards end over end, her toes and fingertips tingling, terrified and ecstatic, plummeting towards that final concrete kiss.”
For me, those two paragraphs efficiently set the tone for the story and the author stays true to that theme. This is a tale of despair. As we learn more of Ingrid, we learn of a recent tragedy in her life. Ingrid’s sister had taken her own life, either deliberately or in an accident involving self-mutilation. Overflowing with grief and guilt Ingrid makes a deal with London; London will take away her humanity and her pain and she will give London her vitality. To put it another way, Ingrid is so stricken with grief that she would rather melt into the floor or become one with a stone than continue to feel the pain of living. But rather than turn her into a stone as she hopes, the city transforms her into a bird.
Suggars’s story is only 3000 words, light on plot, but thematically heavy. It deals with bullying, self-mutilation, suicide, self-esteem issues, family, the geography of London and other complicated topics. The writing is almost like poetry. The paragraphs are short. The story jumps back and forth in time as Ingrid deals with the present and reflects on the past. Several times images or events are described and we are left to infer what those events meant to Ingrid.
I started reading Strange Horizons (S.H.) in about 2007 or 2008, and I would say “London Calling” is a fair representation of the type of fiction that S.H. prefers to publish. I believe that the editors at S.H. seek fiction that first and foremost has something to say about the world today. Typical stories deal with topics such as gender identity, sexuality, child abuse, colonialism, racism or mental health issues. Moreover, S.H. often turns away from traditional storytelling and seeks novel approaches to laying out a story.
An example of more traditional storytelling can be found in Megan Fennell’s “Kakashi & Crow” which was published in 2015 as part of the “Scarecrow” anthology. “Scarecrow” is the third in a series of speculative anthologies edited by Rhonda Parrish. Parrish’s anthologies feature collections of short stories all tied to a single theme. Parrish appears have a preference for Canadian writers and women writers. (Two groups which I am sure could use more exposure).
Fennell’s short story is an unapologeticly entertaining tale that takes the basic dynamic of the odd couple and applies that relationship to extensions of Japanese folklore. Fennell imagines that in modern times there are still immortal shape-shifting animal spirits inhabiting the world. The hero of Fennell’s story is one such immortal animal spirit. We are introduced to the roguish Crow as he lays in a jail cell dreaming about his time flying over Elis Island in 1907. It is a solid introduction to the character, and to the irreverent and restless voice that guides us through the story.
Crow has abilities typical of a fantasy hero. Aside from the ability turn into a small flock of crows, Crow can read minds and scry the future. It is because of these talents that our other hero, Kakashi, bails Crow out of jail. Kakashi is also an immortal; a scarecrow built by the ancient humans to protect humanity’s crops and homes from the animal spirits. Crow and Kakashi have a long history, which Crow describes as a long history of him being beaten and chased by Kakashi.
Kakashi is a humorless, expressionless character who is duty bound to protect humanity from those that seek to exploit humanity (like Crow). But unfortunately for the Scarecrows the world has changed. Humanity now has technology that protects the crops far better than magical men. The existence of these magical beings is a secret, and protecting humanity from that secret is Kakashi’s current task. The current threat to that secret is another Scarecrow that has gone insane and is openly murdering other magical beings.
You can imagine where the story goes from there. The laconic and straight-as-an-arrow Kakashi must team up with his old rival, the glib and self-serving Crow. Can the two put aside their differences, learn to trust each other and defeat the villain? I think they remake this movie every year, and I think I watch it every year.
So do we have an answer? Does turning into a bird ever help? Well, it may never help the character but it appears to help the storytellers. In “London Calling” and “Kakashi & Crow” we have two very different stories told for very different reasons, but they use very similar toolkits. One may find it hard to believe that these two stories would appeal to the same audience, and one may also argue that these two stories are representative of the current divides in the speculative fiction community.
But I do see a strong similarity in the stories and suggest you read them both. Suggars’s story is an exploration of pain and recovery. He uses the bird to represent hope and a visceral pleasure in living. Fennell’s story is a pure piece of genre entertainment, but she also uses the bird to represent certain emotions. Fennell’s birds embody chaos, freedom, and a visceral pleasure in living. So perhaps that what why authors turn their characters into birds, the transformation allows the characters to be free, detached and in the moment. Both Suggars and Fennel would agree that being free as a bird is a better place to be than standing on the edge of a building lost in your own pain.