The Language of Birds

Modern fantasy has a certain offputting feel. Even George R R Martin’s very accomplished Game of Thrones novels have their moments of false wisdom, pretentious solemnity and arrant silliness. S E Lister‘s Augury at first seems like more of the same. Her world is set on a city at the base of a mountain. On the mountain is the temple of the Augurs, where anyone can go for advice and comfort. One day, the Augur prophesies a cataclysm – flood and fire – that will wash the city away. She tells everybody to run. And the authorities in the city don’t like this at all. 

What makes Augury a fine novel is not just Lister’s atmospherics – you can smell the roasting meat, hear the strange voices, feel under your feet the cold stones of her city – but the strong, subtle plot that gets moving from almost the very first page. At the Emperor’s feast a steward named Lennes, the house accountant, a dull and unimaginative man, suddenly takes it upon himself to repeat the Augur’s prophecy in dramatic tones that grab the whole evening – ‘Then there came from the mouth a starred lizard, a salamander. Its eyes were coal and its breath was fire. The lizard crawled from the mouth and down the mountain towards the city. Its body was aflame, and it carried the flames into the city. The voice said to me, What is decaying must burn.‘ Lennes’s sudden mystical outburst does not go down well with the high priest Athraxus, who in a brutal scene plunges his fist into the steward’s mouth and pulls out a chunk of his teeth. 

Grand Viziers are always complete and utter bastards, Terry Pratchett wrote, and high priests tend to get put into the same category. Athraxus is head of the Dark Temple, a faith quite unlike the gentle wisdom of the Augur. Whereas anyone can go to the Augur’s priestesses, for help, the Dark Temple calls to the city’s one per cent, its aristocrats and magistrates and wealthy merchants, who learn the Temple’s secrets in proportion to the amount of money they give in offering, a Scientology sliding scale of revelation. Lister says – in one of her eerie interludes of straight narration – that ‘your story is not your own. Your story is ours to portion out as we please, to be sold back to you at a price.’ Athraxus himself is a fearsome villain who has the Augur captured and tortured, and sets the machinery of the state against her temple. But for all his fury the person he hates most is his own son, the fair-minded dreamer Myloxenes. ‘Thank the gods your mother has bedded so many,’ he shouts. ‘I comfort myself that you could be a bastard.’ 

Against Athraxus and his dark priests a small resistance movement forms: teenage priestesses Saba and Aemilia, the villain’s son Mylo and Antonus, the emperor’s brother. Antonus’s story is particularly poignant because he was originally meant to be the emperor, rather than his brother Laonatus – until a house fire of dubious origin that has left him limping ever since. Laonatus himself is the ideal figurehead for a Grand Vizier type like Athraxus: he’s a lazy degenerate fool who ‘worries about the dim corners of knowledge; about the mysterious migratory destinations of sacred birds; the pages in his father’s annals where records have been poorly kept, the nature and habits of the giant-men who are said to live in the arid country far over the mountains. Just as his bedside lamp is burning dry, Laonatus will rise and upend some dusty case of charts, then call for more lamps so that he can spend the small hours examining them… His chamber-slaves and closest attendants must learn all kinds of unblinking patience.’ Athraxus runs rings round him, gets his okay on all kinds of atrocities, but Antonus is more level headed and would have been a more resolute and better ruler.

The real insight here is not into the lives of great men but the experience of women in fantasy. Saba and Aemilia, like so many other priestesses, are at the Augur’s temple because they have nowhere else to go: without the Augur and the protective space she provides for women they would have been forced into prostitution. Antonus’s wife Junia was ‘ruined’ – raped – and given to Antonus as a gesture of magnanimity from his imperial brother. How she accepts this fate, even flourishes within it, is one of the strongest storylines in this work. It’s no wonder midwives in Lister’s world greet the delivery of girl babies as a curse. Even the Emperor’s wives, Mandane and Cassandane, have been turned into glorified brood-mares. But the courage of Junia, the priestesses, Hestia the wise fool and the Augur herself hold out hope that whatever comes after the coming catastrophe, won’t be so patriarchal. 

This is a novel about religion, and faith, and habits of faith and thought. Laonatus, Athraxus and the ruling elite take as gospel that their city, as corrupt and dysfunctional as it is, will simply go on forever – they are the classic Atlantis men in the Brecht poem, bellowing for their slaves even as the waves roar in. Athraxus’s temple has forced out the household and kitchen gods – the little deities of lares and pennates that were lost in the great march toward monotheism – but once the great catastrophe really does hit the city he seems completely unmoored, a man without a country and a failed magician. Saba and Aemilia have learned to grasp the future through animal entrails and the patterns of birds as they arc across the sky. For good or bad, people are wired up to see patterns in things, codes in the sky, the meaning of life. As Lister says: ‘We all of us dream in the dark.’

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