“Sometimes, you just have to get a knife in your hands and make it clear which way the stabby end is pointing.”
So begins Margaret Killjoy’s novella The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, the first of a pair of books that introduces a fantastic world of magic in America’s decrepit heartland, featuring a band of genderqueer, anarchist demon hunters. The two books are short, sharp, get straight to the point, and present a fantastic world that can be consumed in a single sitting.
Some spoilers ahead for the two books.
In The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, Danielle Cain is hitchhiking to the abandoned town of Freedom, Iowa, the last place her friend Clay lived before he killed himself in a hotel room. She’s trying to piece together his story and why he ended his life, and discovers that the town has been transformed into an anarchist commune, one that’s home to a particularly nasty demon in the form of a red, three-antlered deer named Uliksi.
There, Danielle falls in with a group of like-minded punk anarchists — Brynn, Thursday, and Doomsday — and they watch as the creature brutally kills a man named Anchor. She discovers that Anchor and her friend Clay had a hand in resurrecting the demon, and that its violent behavior is the product of a schism within the supposedly utopian community that’s risen up in the town.
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 town: Pendleton, Montana, now the home of an occult anarchist library. They’re picked up by a woman who claims to have been brought back from the dead, and discover that a necromancer has resurrected several others, as well — with potential, world-shattering consequences.
Both of these books are extremely quick reads: I picked up The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion expecting to read a chapter or two before bed, and ended up finishing it in a single sitting; the same was true the next morning for The Barrow Will Send What It May. Killjoy describes herself as an anarchist who’s spent a considerable time on the road, and that experience shows as she sketches out a world that’s crackling with vivid detail.
Fantasy novels that imagine magic in a realistic setting are plentiful nowadays: there’s Melissa F. Olson’s Nightshades novellas with a modern twist on the vampire, Lev Grossman’s hidden world of magic users in his meta Magicians trilogy, and Mishell Baker’s fantastic Arcadia Project trilogy, which brings fairyland into the modern world. But where those books invent hidden spaces for their sorcerers, Killjoy’s world pushes magic to the edges of society, seen and used only by tiny communities living as far to the edge of mainstream society as possible. Stories about hidden pockets of magic in forgotten American towns feel a bit more convincing.
What makes these books so much fun to read is their setting in the middle of the American heartland: towns hollowed out by the Great Recession and lost opportunities, their former residents fleeing for major population areas. Killjoy’s characters are hitchhikers, anarchists, and squatters, looking for a place to settle and live with the freedom that they desire. In these dead spaces, they bring new life — collective gardens and kitchens and occultist libraries. Killjoy populates these communities with a cast of diverse, full-fledged characters. Danielle is an anxious, driven wanderer; Thursday is something of a hacker and is tickled at the idea of being a demon hunter; Doomsday has a shady, violent past and just wants to keep her head to the ground; and Brynn is an energetic, optimistic calming presence in their little band.
The magic they encounter and wield is equally as exciting. Killjoy depicts it as energy that isn’t subtle, and which has real, heavy consequences. People brought back from the dead increase the chances of an apocalypse, while raising protector spirit demons with the best of intentions might very well backfire on you. Although magic is dangerous, Killjoy goes out of her way to point out one very astute point: it isn’t good or bad, but the decisions made by its wielder are equally powerful. The people who raised the three-antler demon 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, their underlying motivations for playing with incredible magical power was something that they deeply come to regret.
These two novellas are excellent examples of the work their publisher, Tor.com, has been releasing in this format: short, snappy adventures that warrant more detail than a short-story format might be able to provide, yet probably wouldn’t be as interesting as discrete full-length novels. Instead, each novella works perfectly as a self-contained installment to a larger, overarching story. (Martha Wells’ first Murderbot novella All Systems Red is a great example of this, as well).
In this amount of space, Killjoy packs in just the right amount of detail. Her characters are intrinsically human: sharp, flawed, and well-rounded. The world around them feels raw and well-lived, but we never overstay our welcome into it. Both The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion and The Barrow Will Send What It May tell lean but rich stories that sketch out the opening salvos of an impressive urban fantasy world where magic and its wielders live and die in the cracks of society.