Kadrey’s Butcher Bird was published in 2007, two years before his SANDMAN SLIM series. Butcher Bird, subtitled A Novel of the Dominion, shares some themes with its later cousin, but the shape and the tone of this book are completely different.
Spyder Lee is a tattoo artist in San Francisco. He shares his studio with his best friend Lulu Garou, who does piercings. One night, when Spyder steps out into the alley behind his favorite bar, he is attacked. The attack is terrifying, and for one moment Spyder realizes that the thing that is trying to kill him is not human. Seconds later a blind woman with a sword beheads it. When Spyder awakens the next morning, his world has changed. He can see the everyday mundane world he is used to, and more… demons, angels, beasts, and even parts of cities that he’s never imagined.
Spyder becomes obsessed with the swordswoman, Shrike, a human from another dimension or “Sphere.” Shrike is beautiful, sexy, dangerous and treacherous, and she needs Spyder’s help on a quest that will take him and his friend Lulu to Hell. Spyder, not coincidentally, is an armchair expert on Hell, because his last ex-girlfriend was studying medieval Christianity and Spyder read some of her research books.
The story is a classic quest filled with innovative imagery. Tattoos, masks and blindfolds weave in and out of the story, as plot elements in their own right and also as symbols for memory and insight. Spyder thinks of his inked body as “armor,” but he carried the summoning mark of the demon that attacked him and didn’t even know it. Body-art images reappear throughout the story, especially the sacred heart, flowers and an image of barbed wire. Americans have developed the habit of adorning their bodies with symbols whose meanings they do not know, not just sacred hearts, angels and crosses, but symbols from other belief systems and other cultures, chosen because they look cool. Kadrey plays with this idea, adding another level to what would otherwise be a traditional quest tale. For example, the San Francisco that Spyder sees now, with creatures from the other Spheres mingling with human tourists, is not unlike the crazy-quilt tapestry inked on his own body.
Although Lulu and Spyder grew up virtually as street kids, and their language is pretty rough, their friendship shines like a beacon in the story. There is a sweetness to their silly, often drunken, often circular banter that rings of true friendship even at its most absurd, as when Lulu makes this request of Spyder:
“… When I die, make ‘em play ‘Amazing Grace’ at my funeral, okay?”
“I don’t know that they’re going to have ‘Amazing Grace’ on the jukebox at the strip club.”
“What strip club?”
“The one we’re going to have your funeral at.”
“Cool. Can I come?”
The stranger characters who join the quest at various times, like Count Non and Primo, a Gytrash, are vividly rendered both visually, and through dialogue and action. Shrike, the Butcher Bird of the title, is intriguing and seductive, but this story is Spyder’s. Spyder is tough but gallant, and sometimes this makes him, literally and figuratively, a mark. Spyder’s learning curve, or growth curve, is steep, and he is a different person when we meet him here:
He was one of those lanky Texas boys you see working on cars oil-stained driveways, a cooler full of Coors his only concession to the summer heat. A perpetually messy mop of black hair and long arms covered in grease working on the transmission of a vintage Mustang of dubious ownership.
–than the man he is here:
… the angels, demons and strange beasts that wandered in from other Spheres were there too, but their presence seemed kind of normal. It was the athletic shoe ads on the buses, the wandering tourists and ultra-hipsters, the panhandling poser kids that were making it hard for him to breathe.
Spyder cannot un-know what he has learned on his strange, surreal journey.
Lucifer is also a character in this book, and Kadrey works with a theme he will come back to later: sympathy for the devil. The whole conundrum of faith and free will can be explored using the story of Lucifer and the Fall and Kadrey does explore it, along with themes of loyalty, family and fathers.
Butcher Bird is one of those books that, while not derivative, reminded me of other books. This is not because Kadrey borrows catch-phrases or action sequences; it is the sensibility. I thought about Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mirrormask (for the visuals), and Catherynne Valente’s DIRGE FOR PRESTER JOHN series, while I read Butcher Bird. I also knew I was reading an original work with a unique voice. Butcher Bird is an engrossing and slightly unsettling reading experience. It’s available as an e-book, as an audible book on Audible.com, and you can find good-condition copies used through ABEbooks.com. Go find it. Read it. You’ll thank me.