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Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan LindholmOriginal Ace Books edition cover3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsBefore she was Robin Hobb, Megan Lindholm tried her hand at very different kinds of fantasy than the epics she undertook with the Realm of the Elderlings saga. While epic fantasy in the 1980s was dominated by such figures as Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and Stephen R. Donaldson, Megan Lindholm was working more in the corners of the field inhabited by the likes of Charles de Lint, John Crowley, and even Gene Wolfe.

Wizard of the Pigeons is unique not only among Megan Lindholm’s works but also among other entries in what would come to be called urban fantasy. It’s easy to forget that urban fantasy used to be much more than stories about sexy author-insert heroines in tight leather pants fighting demons alongside their hot werewolf boyfriends. Prior to the 2000s, when UF became completely taken over by the commercialized dross that came in the wake of the success of writers like Laurell K. Hamilton and Jim Butcher, urban fantasy was practically punk; a striking rebuttal to the endless disciples of Tolkien, offering stories about magic woven not into secondary worlds, but modern American settings, with heroes that looked like regular people, not noble elves or stalwart swordsmen armored up in the service of all that is Lawful Good.

UK editionWizard of the Pigeons establishes itself as a modern American fable right from its famous opening sentence: “On the far western shore of a northern continent there was once a harbor city called Seattle.” Immediately a tone is set. We are here, but we’re not quite here. This city is familiar to us, but we’re about to see it through an unfamiliar lens. We’re standing at a right angle to the real world, and we’ll be looking into hidden nooks and crannies of it we’ve never seen before.

It’s an allegorical story about the plight of homeless Viet Nam veterans, struggling for years with PTSD, cast off from their families and at the mercy of an uncaring system, pariahs among a lost generation of young men who went away to fight someone else’s war and came home not to ticker tape parades but contempt and rejection. No one talks about Viet Nam anymore in the 21st century. But in the 1980s, it was still a fresh enough wound that it played a major role in the pop culture conversation. Hollywood movies were bringing us Viet Nam stories that were either grossly exploitive power fantasies designed to convince us that we could have won the whole thing easily if we’d wanted to (Rambo and its clones), or relentless grimdark (Apocalypse Now; Platoon; Full Metal Jacket) that held nothing back in confirming that the whole exercise was hell on earth with no point beyond its own cruelty.

Our hero, known to us only as Wizard, is one such veteran. But he seems to have special talents that help him survive on the streets, as well as the support of some friends and a woman named Cassie, who may be a mystic, or a seeress, or a straight-up earth-mother goddess of some kind.

Wizard possesses a natural magic that works as long as he adheres to a set of seemingly frivolous rules. He must never carry more than a dollar in change, he must never lie with a woman, nor harm any of the city’s pigeons. He spends much of his time feeding the pigeons from a popcorn bag that never runs out. Much of the story is centered on internal rather than external conflict, while the specter of Wizard’s past, which he seems to have entirely forgotten (right down to his real name), looms over him. The story is elliptical, skirting the edges of anything concrete while we follow the daily routine of a man who’s a mystery even to himself. In fact, Wizard of the Pigeons is least interesting when Lindholm shifts in the story’s second half to something more conventionally plot-driven, as Wizard finds his fragile life and the magic that makes survival possible threatened by a dark entity called Mir — which is a bit too obviously a literalization of the unresolved psychological traumas of his war experience. It is most interesting, and poignant, in those moments when we know what Wizard is wrestling with internally rather than externally — the silent battle that he pushes deeper down, rather than face.

I can see how there is valid criticism to make of the book’s approach to its theme. Dressing up the plight of the homeless in a coat of magical paint, depicting them as unloved and unrecognized saints rather than real people suffering very basic unfulfilled needs, can feel very patronizing, especially when presented as an earnest attempt to understand and sympathize with their plight. Done poorly, it can be the worst kind of toxic positivity. Lindholm, to her credit, never succumbs that level of melodramatic bathos. As I mentioned above, Lindholm was working within the zeitgeist of a decade coming to terms with Viet Nam through storytelling. She constructs her novel so it exists in a kind of liminal state, with one foot in objective reality and the other forever dipping a toe in somewhere else. We’re left to make up our own minds about a number of questions. Does Wizard really exercise magic among the people he meets, or are these just the survival strategies that street people learn by necessity?

Another aspect of the book that perhaps plays less well today than it did in 1986 is the way the two major female characters hew too closely to madonna/whore archetypes. Cassie is Wizard’s port in the storm. The way she is often unsympathetic to Wizard and impatient in smacking down his moments of spineless self-loathing doesn’t completely make up for how she’s really only in the story to take on all of his emotional labor. And Lynda, a manipulative floozy waitress who attaches herself to Wizard for reasons that make no sense unless interpreted metaphorically, is there only to bring Wizard’s guard down, to strip him of his defenses and render him helpless to the darkness that desperately seeks to consume him.

But for all these gripes, there is a quality and a beauty to the book in its best moments that will work its mean-streets magic on you. It could be the stunningly realized evocation of Seattle itself. Lindholm was clearly aware that the city had to be a character in its own right, not merely a stage, and her gift for immersive world building is almost without peer. Lindholm is so skilled at realizing such familiar locations as Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square that when we suddenly cross a threshold and find ourselves in someplace entirely magical, the shift feels both breathtaking and absolutely natural, as if the two realms really do belong together. Written at a time when so much fantasy was doing little more than recycling the same quest-epic tropes for the millionth time, Wizard of the Pigeons was something far more intimate. The story of a man on a quest, not for a lost magic item, but his own lost self. His own mind, his own identity, his own peace, his own heart.