Review of Advice from Pigeons, a novel by Patricia S. Bowne (Double Dragon Publishing)
Advice from Pigeons, A Royal Academy at Osyth Novel by Patricia S. Bowne, is a welcome addition to the genre of urban fantasy.
Bowne’s humour leaps forth with a notion that dismembering a demon is the best way to get out of heading a Demonology Department: ‘Only two administrators had left that way.’ And later: ‘A demon alone was trouble enough. An affectionate demon was worse.’ Slip in a few banshee screams, a sprinkle of imps or brownies (the kind that stuff cockatrices instead of milking cows), or a spiffy collective noun: ‘a gaggle of nurses by the elevator’, and we’re good to go.
All the better that the central action is set in a pentarium, within a College of Magic. Set in the city of Osyth, the pentarium is financially in thrall to the International Demonological Association that funds its maintenance, in exchange for its hosting of demon conjuring for the purpose of study. There’s even a Guild of Alchemy and a Bank of Mammon – of course!
Among the novel’s attributes is Bowne’s knowledge of magic arts, apparent at the outset. If you share my interest in the kind of job where people casually pull scrying bags out of briefcases or submit papers about incubi in ducks, this tale is for you.
There’s a hint of magic-realism: ‘A black piglet appeared from nowhere and trotted past him, its hooves spattering so close to the lines that Rho caught it up and held it, kicking and nipping, out of harm’s way against his chest.’ From golems to ghosts, and gowns to grimoire, this is magick with whipped cream.
Bowne queries the retreat of academia into its own ranks:
‘Vampires, ghouls and incubi roamed the city… and where was Demonology? Here, fighting over prestige… While wizards built the skyscrapers… and sorcerers cured its businessmen of their ailments, magicians sulked in their castle as if the very existence of a mundane world insulted them.’
Perhaps our cities need such participation, notwithstanding there is a counter call for our universities to maintain integrity from encroaching demands of industry and the edicts of corporate managerialism. Bowne doesn’t balk at satirical allegory. In this caper, academics vie for publication space in nasty journals, regard time on the podium as a chance to attack each other’s research, and become embroiled in magewars at conferences, e.g. when a demon ploughs through someone’s wards to rip him apart.
I also like the recognition by one of the characters, James, that being classist might be more annoying than being sexist. Another chap, Russell – a language magician – expresses what I’ve sometimes disliked about literary theory: ‘We’ll end up with no magic at all… When we’ve studied all the words, broken all the way out of our conditioning into rational analysis, what will we use to call the magic up in ourselves?’
Reading about demon-warding in this e-book was a pleasing synchronicity, as I was reading about wards in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle in parallel.
I have two quibbles. The first is excessive use of prepositions in the opening, such as ‘up’ – a minor flaw. Of more concern is the plethora of characters, but admittedly I have the same criticism of Alan Garner’s fantasy classic, The Owl Service, which, like Advice from Pigeons, brims with dialogue. A high number of speakers warrants distinctiveness for each voice, whether it be by dialect, tone, lingo, or another distinguishing quirk. A cast can then be reduced by combining any surplus characters who seem interchangeable. In Bowne’s tale, abundance of characters hasn’t subdued the magnetism of the protagonists, chiefly Harim Rho. His ambivalent nature (more feline than human) suits his personality; he has learned the language of animals, and is well acquainted with the habits of alley cats. As an ailurophile, I find Rho intriguing.
Expression is savvy, chic and arresting, as in this probing alliterative question: ‘Or would he find himself trapped inside whatever he had recklessly entered—a tree or a tapeworm?’ Or these gorgeous lines: ‘The pentarium at the Royal Academy of the Arcane Arts and Sciences lay below ground in a cavern under the Magic Building, dug into the ley-line itself and humming with power’; ‘Syllables beat against one another like waves at cross purposes or birds fighting in midair’; a pigeon’s wings are ‘blowing snow crystals up in a swirl’.
My favourite passage makes eerie, terrifying sense, as a description not only of a disembodied spirit separated from its body, but also, of mental conditions such as anxiety or distraction, the kind that haunts our exhibitionist, petty, materialistic era:
‘This was loneliness. Not an empty void, not silence, not solitude. Lonely was a busy place, where every passing thought looked into Russell’s face and made sport of him, and nothing was to be learned from any of them. An endless crowd of thoughts surrounded him, pushing in on every side, the detritus of a life’s idle fancies, and Russell had no eyes to shut against them, no ears to stop. The mental chatter he had kept up all his life filled him now.’
With insights like this, Advice from Pigeons deserves to be wrested from cyberspace and fully embodied in the incarnation of print, as one hopes Warren’s soul finds reconciliation with his body, or demons with alchemists, or Rho with his talents. But for now, you can get the ebook edition here.
Bowne shows verisimilitude in world-building, felicity with imagery, and knowledge of magic. Recommended for readers of urban fantasy, magic-realism and upbeat fairy tales.
Author: Patricia S. Bowne
Patricia is the author of a wide variety of fantasy stories and the Royal Academy at Osyth series, novels and stories set in the Demonology Department of a modern University of Magic. For details of more Royal Academy novels and short stories, visit her website.
Reviewer: Louisa John-Krol
Louisa is an enchanting and treasured Monash Fairy Tale Salon member. Find out more about her at her website, and read more of her reviews at the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog.