Saturday, August 27, 2011


Advice from Pigeons is the first novel in a nascent series which Bowne describes as "academic satire and fantasy for faculty" (though the satire is so gentle that it's usually unnoticeable, and you don't need to be a faculty member to enjoy the book). According to Bowne's website, a second novel has just been released, and more novels are forthcoming. There have also been several short stories, published in small-press magazines, which I haven't read; but most of the novel's potential readers won't have read them either. Much of the book's originality and pleasure comes from the world Bowne has created, so I'll discuss that first.

Advice from Pigeons takes place in a world which is not ours, but very much like our present-day world, except that magic is commonplace and is integrated into everyday life. Users of magic are divided into five classes, although only two of these classes appear in more than bit parts in the book. Wizards build things. Sorcerors heal. Alchemists can change the laws of nature for everything, everywhere, but they have to get approval from their Guild on pain of death, which can be a headache: as one alchemist complains, "People let nature get away with murder, but as soon as they realize a person is designing it, they start to think he ought to be able to please everyone." (p. 282) Practitioners of the Arcane Arts "explore the links between human creativity and the arcane." Magicians, who are the principal subject of Advice from Pigeons, study the spiritual world and the principles of magic, though that doesn't mean that they can't do magic themselves.

Magicians are themselves divided into various sub-classes, according to the type of spiritual beings they study, among other things. In Advice from Pigeons we see magicians who study imps, vampires and incubi (the study of incubi is known as "venery" and its practitioners are referred to as "lechers"). But the focus is on demonologists. Every weekday morning the collective faculty of the Demonology Department of the Royal Academy at Osyth gathers and attempts to summon a demon. Demons in Advice from Pigeons' world don't come from Hell, but they're still dangerous to deal with, not so much because of their capacity for violence (though there is that) as because of their ability to covertly influence one's mind.

We don't learn much about the actual mechanics of magic, but charms seem to work through persuasion, either logical or emotional. The Demonology Department uses "charms of discourse" -- philosophical arguments -- to persuade demons to take on bodily form, and these charms only work until demons learn how to refute them. And the Department's exorcist banishes demons by being dismissive, which she's very good at.

The book takes place almost entirely in its world's version of academia, which is almost exactly like our academia, except with magic. Anyone who's gone to an American university, or read a novel set in one, will find the Royal Academy at Osyth and its faculty instantly recognizeable. The wider academic world, too, will be familiar (although academic feuds between demonologists can be deadly). Unlike many academic novels, though, the faculty of the demonology department are all competent and, with one exception, content with their positions.

The exception, Hiram Rho, is the book's main protagonist. Rho had a troubled adolescence. He lived on the streets, scavenging and selling his body, until he met a magician who took him in and introduced him to the academic world. The academy where he did his graduate work was ancient and prestigious. Now, fresh out of grad school, he alternates between looking down on his new colleagues at Osyth as provincial, bourgeois mediocrities and feeling inadequate to his new position. This makes him easy prey for the blandishments of what turns out to be a particularly unpleasant demon. Rho is the best character in the book: his personality and his actions throughout most of the book would make him a villain in most books, but I found him sympathetic, even while I cringed at his mistakes and poor judgment.

The book's other major plot strand revolves around Warren Oldham, the head of the department, and Russell Cinea, the department's top magician. Both are suffering from midlife crises, and midway through the book their souls depart from their bodies, leaving their bodies walking and talking but without personality and technically dead (and therefore without health insurance). Warren' wife Lillian, one of the few non-academic characters, and Teddy Whin, Russell's colleague and friend (who enjoys pointing out the phallocentrism in Russell's charms of discourse), together struggle to return the magicians' errant souls. I didn't find this plot strand compelling, although the descriptions of the magicians' souls' experiences outside their bodies were interesting.

Of the other characters, the most interesting is an angry alchemist named Navanax (the one quoted earlier). His story is left unresolved, though, evidently being saved for another book.

Advice from Pigeons is fun, though lightweight. As mentioned above, much of the fun comes from the way its world smoothly blends magic into everyday life. It has flaws: because the mechanics of magic are only described vaguely, the significance of what seems intended to be a major plot development is unclear. But I recommend it, and look forward to reading future books in the series.

Advice from Pigeons is available as an ebook from Double Dragon Publishing and Amazon.

[Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book from the author.]

EDITED TO ADD: I forgot to mention that you can read the first chapter for free on Bowne's website. You can also read the first chapter of the second book.

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