"Sometimes you just have to put a knife in your hands and make it clear where the stabbing is going"
This is how Margaret Killjoy's novel begins The lamb will kill the lion the first of a couple of books that presents a fantastic world of magic in the decrepit heart of the United States, with a gang of anarchist demon hunters and gender geneticists. The two books are short, sharp, straight to the point and present a fantastic world that can be consumed in a single session.
Some spoilers later for the two books.
In The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion Danielle Cain hitchhiking in the abandoned city of Freedom, Iowa, the last place where her friend Clay lived before committing suicide in a hotel room. She is trying to reconstruct her story and why she ended her life, and discovers that the city has been transformed into an anarchist commune, which is the home of a particularly nasty demon in the form of a three-horned red deer named Uliksi.
There, Danielle joins a group of like-minded punk anarchists (Brynn, Thursday and Doomsday) and watches the creature brutally kill a man named Anchor. She discovers that Anchor and her friend Clay had a hand to resurrect the devil, and that their violent behavior is the product of a schism within the supposedly utopian community that has risen in the city.
In the second book, The Barrow Will Send What It May Danielle, Brynn, Thursday and Doomsday are on the run after the events of the first book, and They find themselves in another lost city: Pendleton, Montana, now home to a hidden anarchist library. They are picked up by a woman who claims to have been brought from the dead and discover that a necromancer has also resurrected many others, with possible devastating consequences.
Both books are extremely quick readings: I collected The Lamb W They killed the Lion expecting to read one or two chapters before going to bed, and I ended up finishing it in one session; the same thing happened the next morning for The Barrow Will Send What It May. Killjoy describes herself as an anarchist who has spent considerable time on the road, and that experience is shown as she draws a world that is crackling with vivid details.
There are now many fantasy novels that imagine magic in a realistic setting: there are novels by Melissa F. Olson Nightshades with a modern twist on the vampire, the hidden world of magical users of Lev Grossman in his goal Magicians trilogy, and the fantastic trilogy of Mishell Baker Arcadia Project that takes the fairies to the modern world. But when those books invent hidden spaces for their sorcerers, the world of Killjoy pushes magic towards the edges of society, seen and used only by small communities that live as far from the edge of society as possible. Stories about hidden pockets of magic in forgotten American towns feel a little more convincing.
What makes these books so fun to read is their environment in the heart of the United States: cities emptied by the Great Recession and lost opportunities, their former residents fleeing to the main population areas. The characters of Killjoy are hitchhikers, anarchists and squatters, who seek a place to settle and live with the freedom they want. In these dead spaces, they bring new life: gardens and collective kitchens and occult libraries. Killjoy populates these communities with a cast of diverse and complete characters. Danielle is an anxious and driven vagabond; Thursday is something of a hacker and tickles the idea of being a demon hunter; Doomsday has a dark and violent past and just wants to keep his head on the ground; and Brynn is an energetic, optimistic and calming presence in his little band.
The magic they find and exercise is just as exciting. Killjoy represents it as energy that is not subtle, and that has real and heavy consequences. People brought from the dead increase the chances of an apocalypse, while elevating demon spirits with the best of intentions may well be counterproductive to you. Although magic is dangerous, Killjoy deviates from his path to point out a very cunning point: it is not good or bad, but the decisions made by its bearer are equally powerful. The people who raised the three-horned deer deer in Iowa did so to protect their community from a power-hungry demagogue, while the necromancer deeply missed his wife, but in both cases, his underlying motivations for playing with incredible Magical power was something that they deeply regret.
These two novels are excellent examples of the work that their editor, Tor.com, has released in this format: short, quick adventures that require more detail than a short story format could provide, but probably would not. be as interesting as the long-running novels. Instead, each novel works perfectly as an autonomous delivery to a wider and more global story. (The first novel by Martha Wells Murderbot All Systems Red is a great example of this, too).
In this amount of space, Killjoy packs with just the right amount of detail. His characters are intrinsically human : sharp, defective and rounded. The world around them feels raw and well lived, but we never extend our welcome in it. Both The Lamb W killed the lion and The Barrow Will Send What It May tell lean but rich stories that sketch the opening salvoes of an impressive urban fantasy world where Magic and its possessors-TKTKTK-live and die in the cracks of society.