Birds of Paradise
By Oliver K. Langmead
Titan Books — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789094817 — Paperback — 298 pp.
I’m not typically one to get awestruck by a cover, but even I had to stare impressed with the design on Oliver K. Langmead’s Birds of Paradise for a good while before cracking the book open to begin reading. It’s the work of graphic designer Julia Lloyd, and I want to be sure and give credit for such fantastic, evocative work.
Langmead’s novel takes an interesting premise and runs with it in inventive ways that create a hybrid sort of genre novel, equal parts dark fantasy and heist crime noir, with a dash of John Wick thrown in. The official blurb of the novel dubs it American Gods meets The Chronicles of Narnia. While I can see the Gaiman American Gods vibe going here, the latter comparison makes absolutely no sense to me. A Biblical story lies within the inspiration, but it is not working the Creation story in any of the ways that any established religion does, whether using the Hebraic version or another.
Instead, Langmead takes the concept of a created perfection in the Garden of Eden, and considers the characters who populated it prior to the Fall. There is Adam and Eve, of course. But, also all of the other created species that populate its land, air, and waters. In particular, all the animals that Adam had a role in naming, intelligences that while not quite human ‘in the image of God’ still have a relatable consciousness.
If these were all created in a perfection, immortal before sin and death entered the world, what might have occurred after the Fall? What if the mortality and the loss of perfection only affected all that came afterward. What if all those archetypes remained immortal, but their perfection became lost and fragmented to all the corners of the Earth? In other words, Langmead spins his own mythological take on the outcome of the Creation story.
Set during the present day, Birds of Paradise follows Adam as he struggles to keep up his existence roaming the Earth and not giving in to despair to end his immortality to meet the fate that all of his children that have come to populate the planet can enjoy. Only one thing keeps Adam driven to continue on, the potential of recovering Eden, finding the fragmented creatures and pieces of its ruins.
Stories of rumors and pieces being discovered start to reach Adam’s ears, and his former animal friends like Owl, or Raven, or Pig start to reunite, coming out from their lives among the human population they’ve learned to integrate into, hidden for centuries. Adam begins to imagine that if he can recapture, and recreate Eden, then maybe the paradise that he has so long been exiled from could finally return. Full of despair and yearning for Eve, the woman he exchanged hearts with, but has since lost sets him on a personal quest for redemption and reclaimed worth.
However, a group of powerful and rich individuals have also set their eyes on amassing the scattered fragments of Edenic perfection, and are willing to destroy anyone that gets in their way, even the archetypical animals who still persist across Earth with deep personal connection to their former home. When these individuals of desire and greed kill another piece of Adam’s cherished past, it sets the First Man on a path of violence, not just to recapture Eden, but to enact bloody revenge.
Langmead writes Birds of Paradise in rich, poignant prose, a beauty that contrasts sharply against the raw, violent brutality of many of its action sequences and the brooding weariness of its protagonist’s soul. This is a dark novel, even pessimistic, where the drive to fight on comes with the near total realization that Eden can’t be recreated, that Adam is doomed to failure, and his soul mate Eve cannot return. Adam’s a man who lives in an eternity of memory, knowing that the perfect good times he once enjoyed are gone. But, the only thing that can keep him going on is that shred of hope that maybe, just maybe he can build some sort of simulacrum of that perfection to at least pretend and experience some bits of joy anew.
And moreso, even if he can’t go back home to the perfect Eden, he is certainly not going to sit by and watch others create a bastardized version of it for their own selfish amusement as they rule over rest of his children. Or let them kill his only remaining friends in the process of their hubris, falling to the same sin as he and Eve.
Langmead’s plot is a very compelling one, and he effectively delves without reserve into the dark emotions of humanity. Personally, I found it all too dark and depressive, the revenge too cold blooded. I felt as though Adam was just as reprehensible and vile as the antagonists of the novel. I just got a better sense of the intense trauma that got Adam to this point of weary despair, destroyed. But I’m not sure I enjoyed reading it, or if I wanted to particularly dwell amid it. However, for those who that strikes better, Langmead does deal in that darkness with aplomb.
The element I enjoyed most in Birds of Paradise included the various animal personalities from Eden who join Adam along the way to various degrees. Langmead makes these characters rich and vibrant, across a spectrum of personality traits that cleverly mimic their animal origins. The concept of these human-like magical Edenic progenitors of the creatures that now inhabit the Earth with us is an interesting one. And there are intersting parallels here in terms of Adam’s place within the context of these other characters – his responsibility to them and the concepts of humankind’s stewardship of Creation, to live as part of the ecosystem with conscious responsibility. Something we’ve failed at. It’s thus interesting that this is perhaps the one thing that Adam recaptures here from Eden, a sense of communion and connection, a reunion.
The other element I appreciated in the novel were the the protagonist – antagonist conflict and the heists of Edenic fragments that fuel it. Strip away the brutality and what we’re left with here is a very brutal noir story, with all its aura of dark pessimism. Langmead kept me engaged in Adam’s melancholic journey because of this plot conflict, with the exuberance of the novel’s villains.
As I think about it more, I usually go for noir that is brutally dark, so why was I a bit more off put by it here in Birds of Paradise? For one, Adam felt a bit too unredeemable for my tastes, I probably would react similarly if he were a corrupt and degenerate PI, for instance. But also it’s the religious aspects of the novel here, the idea that Adam is trying to recreate the ideal of God by doing things that are even more rebellious and counter to Christian concepts, at least. This is my own perspective butting in here, though. Langmead makes it clear that this is not a Biblical reality, God is pretty much absent from things here, certainly the Christian concept. But, it’s harder for me to make that separation and form that disbelief amid a fictional world. I could do it with Norse gods, or with Greek ‘mythology.’ Not so easily with what’s closer and more ingrained.
Birds of Paradise succeeds very well at doing what the novel sets out to do, and for fans of this type of fantasy genre there is a lot of wonderment within its framework to appreciate, enjoy, and ponder.