Mills, Magnus. A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In

Bloomsbury, $29.99

The Emperor of Fallowfields is absent. The Empire is in disarray. The Imperial Court is populated by a cabinet of incompetence: Brambling, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Garganey, Postmaster General, Sanderling, Comptroller for the Admiralty, Dotterel, Surveyor of the Imperial Works, Wryneck, Pellitory-of-the-Wall, and Smew, Librarian in Chief.

Whimbrel, the Astronomer Royal, has neither knowledge of the stars nor a working telescope. Our narrator, the Principal Composer to the Imperial Court, is a gormless fellow boasting little musical acumen. Fortunately for him, his chief conductor, Greylag, is a genius, which makes him look good. Why the court’s members are named after birds is not revealed, and most likely a Mills irrelevance. Which is rather typical of this vague, strange, and surreal novel.

Fallowfields was once a mighty seafaring nation, a great empire. Then, one by one, their ships sailed westward, never to return, until none remained. The Imperial Court is not particularly interested in the lands that lie to the east. However, once they discover that the imperial telescope can be “fixed” by the addition of a sixpence coin, they note a threat approaching through the forest: a new railway line is approaching.

This is a very unusual, dry little book. Faintly disturbing, Kafka-esque, Mills’s writing is easy to admire. His dialogue is a lesson to writers. His structure is architectural.

I easily read this at a fast clip. But I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it.


Reviewed November 2011