Black Feathers – Dark Avian Tales: An Anthology
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Pegasus Books Ltd.
Released February 5, 2017
Reviewed by Brian James Lewis

At first glance, some might not take the concept of a dark fiction anthology featuring birds too seriously. That’s because they’re just imagining some cheerful cheeping birds like Chickadees gathering to enjoy some sunflower seeds. Right. Well, we’re not talking about them. The stories in Black Feathers are about birds who kill and eat flesh. Birds that watch and wait for something to make an opportunity for them don’t have time for frivolous twittering. They are predators, so do not be fooled! Your sanity is very much at stake here.

This anthology starts with the perfectly placed poem, O Terrible Bird by Sandra Kasturi. Between that and short story The Obscure Bird by Nicholas Royle, we are shown that nothing is solid. Strange things can happen when the normal balance shifts and birds are present. Things like human husbands turning into owls, for example. But, Black Feathers is a trippy book that flips reality upside down so that wrong things are right and vice-versa. In the Pigeon from Hell by Stephen Graham Jones, a teenager kills the little boy that her friend is supposed to be babysitting. She gets away with it, too. Or does she? A certain magical pigeon might change all that.

Joyce Carol Oates contributes Great Blue Heron to this anthology. Oates writes with such power that I found myself feeling very upset about Claudia’s plight. She is recently widowed and is unfortunate to have “a scavenger bird” of a brother-in-law. He is always pushing, prying, and forcing himself upon this woman who is exhausted from all the details of death. Just as many pairs of birds mate for life, so had she with her late husband. Without him, everything is off balance. People are idiots, well-meaning or otherwise. All their fluttering is confusing and a burden. Returning phone calls, fending off pleas to let them “help.” That’s the problem, all she and her late husband did was try to do right by everyone. Claudia isn’t finding that to be satisfying at all. She doesn’t want to be boxed in or held tight! Claudia wants to be free and strong, not part of a flock. She’ll spread her wings and counter-attack with her sharp beak! Soon, a large dangerous bird is putting nasty humans in their place. Is it possible that Claudia has become a great blue heron, along with her husband?

Can humans turn themselves into birds? Should they? In Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring by M. John Harrison, we have a tale of genetic engineering gone too far and life gone wrong. While in The Season of the Raptors by Richard Bowes, the narrator’s mind is taken over by raptors until he is driven to worship them. The story is full of freaky events that may or may not be dreams. Maybe people are just looking for real meaning in a world that’s gone too techno? These kinds of tales give this collection a Noir type of feel. Things fade in and out of focus-Is it night or day? The reader has to make the call and the feelings you get are ones of unease.

Drifty, feathery, scary, and twisty. Maybe birds have hollow bones to allow them to fly, but Black Feathers is a dense volume that definitely takes time to read through and digest. Especially when drugs are thrown into the mix, as they are in The Acid Test by Livia Llewellyn. Want to take an acid trip without taking acid? Then read this story and let it warp your brain into a new form. Maybe you’ll even make it into the purple room…Mental illness has a similar effect, as in The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids by Seanan McQuire. A young girl counts corvids to make sense of her world and when the only thing good in it is subtracted, she needs to do some subtraction of her own.

I really like Black Feathers and encourage all of our readers to give it a try! When an award-winning editor puts together such an interestingly themed collection of stories together, you know that it’s got to be good! While avian knowledge will be helpful for reading and understanding some things a little quicker, it is not required. So don’t be shy! Step right up and grab a copy of this fantastic book before they all fly off the shelves!