Wizard of the Pigeons, by Megan Lindholm

Wizard of the Pigeons, published in 1985, is considered by many to be a pioneer of the urban fantasy genre, sometimes even cited as a prime example of how to “do urban fantasy right.” It was written by Megan Lindholm, who now writes – as many of you know – as Robin Hobb.

The novel is set in modern day Seattle (well, modern in the eighties), and focuses around a group of street people who call themselves Children of the City. In Lindholm’s Seattle, the homeless are powerful wizards held in poverty by the rules of their magic. Their job is to take care of the city, and in return, the city takes care of them.

The magic varies from person to person, and isn’t the kind of thing you would typically expect from something called magic. Some of the street people find chilling portents in things as simple as children’s jump rope songs, or in graffiti. Others make their way by playing music for change on the streets, with a particular knack for catching a song that’s been stuck in your head all day. Every wizard has rules for their magic, and they must never take more from it than they give.

The main character, known to the others simply as Wizard, has the power of Knowing. The citizens of Seattle seek him out and – hardly conscious to his presence – they lay out their problems. He mutters a few words of wisdom, just the right words to set them back on the right path, and they leave with a seemingly sourceless sense of clarity. Wizard must care for pigeons as if they’re sacred. He must never keep more than a dollar in change. He must remain celibate, and above all, he must always tell people what he Knows. In return, Seattle sees to it that he gets by fed, safe, and unnoticed.

Billy was a sniper, Billy got a gun
Billy thought killing was fun, fun, fun
How many slopes did Billy get?
One, two, three, four…

A dark and unseen force arrives that has the potential to spell disaster for the entire city. It soon becomes clear that it’s after Wizard, and he’s the only one who can stop it.

This was my first foray into the Megan Lindholm back list, and I was very curious to see how her older works compare to her recent epics. I was delighted that her writing, even then, is graceful as ever. This woman wields prose better than anyone I’ve ever read. Wizard, in typical Hobb fashion, was often frustrating but you couldn’t help but feel sorry for him anyway. He makes Real Person decisions, and that’s never an easy thing to swallow. All of the characters are strong, believable people, and no one is without flaws.

Seattle almost becomes a character in itself, and the detail put into describing it was both dead on and fascinating. I’ll admit to squealing with excitement a few times when a scene took place somewhere that I’ve been.

I’ve read a few complaints about a slow pace, but it was the exact opposite for me. It was an easy story for me to get absorbed in, and I found myself flying through the pages, eager to find out what would happen next. When I realized there were only seventy pages left, I had to deliberately slow down because I didn’t want it to end. However, there is very little action. If that’s something you look for in your fantasy, then this may not be the book for you. If you enjoy getting wrapped up in strong character development, then this book is a must read.

I only have two complaints, and neither of them are the fault of the book itself.

  1. In the edition I read, the description on the back nonchalantly throws out a HUGE spoiler about something that doesn’t even happen until near the end. Not only is this aggravating, but it also made the book sound incredibly lame. Whoever thought this would be a good idea should be shot. Luckily, the more recent Harper Collins edition seems to have fixed this problem.
  2. The book is out of print and pretty much impossible for the casual reader to find.

And point two is a very sad thing, because Wizard of the Pigeons is a treasure of a book that doesn’t deserve to be as lost as it’s become. It may sound biased, considering the setting and the author, but I honestly can’t think of a book I’ve enjoyed more. If any of you happen across this book in the future, I DEMAND that you pick it up and treat yourself to some truly amazing urban fantasy. At a mere 250 pages, you have no excuse not to.

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