Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wizard of the Pigeons - Megan Lindholm

This is the ninth out of ten books Lindhom wrote under this pen name, before moving on to her Robin Hobb alter ego. The tenth, Cloven Hooves (1991) is unfortunately out of print so I have no idea when, or if, I can get my hands on that. There is a fairly recent Dutch translation but I would rather read the original. Wizard of the Pigeons (1986) is still available as mass market paperback. I got a copy last year and as usual is spent too much time on the to read stack. Once again I am impressed with the diversity of Lindholm's writing. This book is again unlike any of the others I've read. I guess you could call it an Urban Fantasy before the werewolf boyfriends took over, or maybe magical realism would fit better. It is a very good book whichever genre label you prefer.

For those who can see it, Seattle, the Emerald City, is a place of magic. Living by his own rules, Wizard makes a living on what opportunities the city offers. He has elevated scavenging to an art and appears comfortable in his life as Wizard. Soon it becomes clear that all is not well in Seattle however. A ghost form Wizard's past is threatening the city and he is the only one who can stop it. His past is pulling at him to leave the magical existence he's built for himself and reintegrate in the mundane world, but doing so while this threat remains unchallenged would threaten more than just Wizard's life. He will have to confront and defeat this creature to save the city. He knows he has a chance of doing so, if only he could stick to the rules of his magic.

When we meet Wizard, he is a man without a past. Even his name is gone and he tries very hard to keep his own past at bay. Even claiming that he cannot remember what he was before he became Wizard. He's a perfect example of the unreliable narrator and one of the strong points of this novel is how Lindholm uses this to build her story. It is clear early on that Wizard is a homeless man and that much of what he perceives as magic are tricks that help him survive on a day to day basis. He invents routines that keep himself safe and relatively comfortable. They are ways to allow himself to ignore the abject poverty in which he lives and hopelessness of his situation. There are a few things that cannot be explained by denial or self preservation however.

His magical talent is called Knowing. When people talk to him, once in a while Knows things about them and is compelled to answer their question or provide a solution to their problem. This magic is not free, in order to use it, Wizard must abide by a lot rules; a celibate life, never to carry more than a dollar in small change on him and feed an protect his pigeons to name a few. This is another area where Lindholm mixes reality and imagination. Part of Wizard's rules are designed to keep people away from him. He never lets anyone near and is very careful not to have his hide-out discovered. When someone does manage to get close, his past inevitably comes calling. The story develops a second layer once details of his past as a Vietnam veteran emerge, one that is even more heartbreaking than the magical side of the tale.

Wizard is not the only one able to see and use the magic of the city. We meet three more people with magical abilities in the city of which Cassie is closest to Wizard. She introduced him to Seattle's magical side and has her own taboos associated with using her magic. Cassie is an intriguing character, often confusing Wizard (and the reader) with the roundabout way in which she tries to explain things to him. The way Cassie's behaviour and the resolution of the novel both come back to their respective taboos, real and imagined, is some of the best Lindholm has written. As usual, she uses her characters hard, Lindholm is not a writer who likes straightforward happy endings.

The city of Seattle is described in colourful detail in this novel. Wizard has an eye for its beauty and the the history that shaped the city's appearance. I think people who are familiar with the city will get a lot more out of this aspect of the novel. Wizard's perceptions allow him to spot opportunities easily but also serve to give the reader a glimpse of what the magical Seattle would look like. While the novel shows the Emerald City at its best, Lindholm is equally capable of turning Seattle into a grey, rainy and depressing place or a hostile and threatening one, suiting Wizard's mood in such scenes. The Wizard is sensitive to the mood of the city and Lindholm's descriptions reflect these moods very well.

Wizard of the Pigeons is a novel with many layers. Do you choose to see Wizard as a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome or a figure not unlike Merlin? It is a story of unrequited love, a magical quest or facing a dark past? Is Seattle magical or mundane? Is the city sheltering him or is he protecting the city? Lindholm leaves the reader a lot of room to interpret the story but nonetheless manages to write a conclusion to the story that makes all the elements fall into place. The author packs a lot into this slim volume, most of it just under the surface of the main narrative. The author does not provide all the answers, you must go digging for your own. Every novel I read by Lindholm strengthens my opinion that these books are seriously under appreciated and this one was no exception. A definite candidate for this year's best of list.

Book Details
Title: Wizard of the Pigeons
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 298
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-711256-2
First published: 1986


  1. I've got to admit, I've not heard of this one, but it definitely sounds like my thing :)

  2. I like to throw on a lesser known work once in a while. Even if it is disastrous for my traffic ;)

  3. Ohh but it's educating your traffic, which can only be a good thing :) (can't seem to comment under my Wordpress ID!)