Lessons in Birdwatching by Honey Watson
(Angry Robot, 2023)
Reviewed by Steven French
Billed as ‘darkly comic’, this novel of political intrigue, magic and murder is certainly dark, with bloody chunks of body horror scattered liberally throughout but I have to admit, I found it hard to spot the comedic elements. Set on Apech, a planet whose leaders aspire to union with the Crysthian Empire, it features as its central protagonists five young emissaries of the empire, representing its four symbiotic factions, ‘Red’, ‘Military’, ‘Green’ and ‘Ethicist’, each of which has its own imperial figurehead. ‘It works’ is all we are told about the functional arrangements. Bored and dissolute, serving their time in this backwater before—they hope—entering the highest levels of the empire’s civil service, the five suddenly find themselves plunged into a violent maelstrom of conspiracy and insurrection after one of Apech’s leaders is brutally slaughtered, her body displayed alongside what could be an anti-Crysthian slogan. Inexperienced and woefully unprepared, four of the five flounder but not Wilhelmina Ming, in line to be the next Ambassador and already planet-side when the others arrive. Following her own agenda, her actions threaten to plunge not just Apech but Crysth itself into deadly chaos.
Mirroring the political atmosphere, the principal city of Lon Apech is described as shadowy and fog bound, where monstrous and grim buildings—including, bizarrely, a replica of the Vasa, a 17th century Swedish warship that, famously, sank on its maiden voyage—‘leer’ out of the mist amid ‘geysers of screaming waste’, illuminated by lights that not only glow and dazzle but also ‘brawl’. Whether intentional or not, this odd use of familiar terms, coupled with shifts in tense not only between but within chapters, contributes to a confusing reading experience. At crucial points I had difficulty tracking quite what was going on, which again, may have been intentional but then if you have a story in which the politics, the landscape and the culture are all murky and obscure, it helps to have some clearly defined central characters who can be empathised with and plot elements that can be straightforwardly followed. Neither is the case here, unfortunately.
Much of the book is spent following the bickering exchanges between the Crysthians, none of whom are particularly likeable, or, I have to say, all that well delineated. Except, again, for Ming who is obsessed by the apparent magic that deforms the bodies of a significant proportion of the native population—to the extent that she engages in behaviour that can only be described as grotesque and repulsive. And in a context where demons power trains and weapons, this ‘magic’, also, turns out to be not what it seems. With that revelation, the action finally kicks off and in the last few chapters, events happen fast and furiously. However, it then all screeches to a halt on the cliff-edge of Crysthian intervention and as much as I appreciate the desire to set things up for a sequel, I found myself frustrated by the abruptness of the conclusion. Again, this may have been intentional but I’m not sure how many readers will appreciate being left Wile E. Coyote-like, legs spinning in mid-air!
As an attempt to portray a culture that looks and feels alien, which attempts to mimic features of another—as in the case of the Vasa but also that of the dignitaries wearing togas and dinosaur costumes at the local spaceport—but which also tortures and kills transgressors, this is an interesting and worthy effort. However, it does feel as if too many ingredients were thrown into the pot and as a result the novel is not as effective as it might be. With a little restraint and a stronger cast of characters this could have been a winning contribution to the horror/SF corpus; hopefully the follow-up will fulfil its potential.