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Advice From Pigeons
A Royal Academy At Osyth Novel
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-808-7
Genre: Fantasy/SF/Dark Fantasy
eBook Length: 388 Pages
Published: February 2011

Total Readers: 5

From inside the flap

Some jobs are more trouble than they’re worth ...
Hiram Rho, newest member of the Demonology department at the Royal Academy at Osyth, tries to gain his footing among colleagues with specialties like vampirology, classical lechery, and postmodern feminist demonology. Before Rho has been on campus a month he has acquired an affectionate demon with a plan to take over the department, the two senior demonologists have lost their souls and their health insurance, and Rho’s problems have embroiled everyone from the mysterious Alchemy faculty to the pigeons on his window ledge.

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Reviews and Awards

"I was delighted to come across this wry, inventive fantasy set in an Academy of Magic. The newest faculty member, Hiram Rho, observes how members of the Academy control demons using charms of discourse: basically, defeating the creatures through argument. But when Rho picks up his own demon at a conference, he brings an evil force into this community of scholars, and has to decide whether community means anything to him, and whether he is meant to be a scholar himself.

The fantasy wouldn't work nearly so well if the Academy wasn't so real. Anyone who's spent time at a university will recognize the place, with its ponderous administration (just consider health insurance: if a student of vampirism gets turned into a vampire, the Academy is stuck paying dental bills for eternity) and snooty profs ("Saying a demon is evil is both a tautology and an excuse for not investigating its behavior"). There are plenty of interesting characters, such as my favorite, the no-nonsense Teddy Whin, who snaps: "If I wanted to figure things out for myself, I would hardly own this many books." And a touch of humor softens even the bleakest moments: mauled in the night by a demon, Rho protests: "I can't call in sick. I don't have tenure!" - Sofia Samatar, winner the World Fantasy Award.
Advice from Pigeons is fun, though lightweight. As mentioned above, much of the fun comes from the way its world smoothly blends magic into everyday life. It has flaws: because the mechanics of magic are only described vaguely, the significance of what seems intended to be a major plot development is unclear. But I recommend it, and look forward to reading future books in the series.

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Advice From Pigeons (Excerpt)

Chapter One

Within the next half-hour, Warren Oldham thought he would either be successful or dismembered. At the thought, all the worries that had romped through his mind ever since he opened his eyes that morning froze or dove for cover, and Warren stood up taller. He felt his bones balancing on each other and the muscles that held them in place, the nerves that sent messages to them with pinpoint accuracy, the brain that generated the messages, the mind that thought them up, the soul that determined what the mind would come up with, what defined him as Warren and nobody else. Warren had called up a demon every weekday morning for almost twenty-eight years, and every time he did the preparatory inventory he felt this satisfaction and confidence. It was a sign of having chosen the right career.

He shut his eyes for a moment, swaying backwards and forwards a little, and thought that anyone who looked at him would have seen a stout pink-and-white man with a little tonsure and a large mustache-a man with no worries.

"Well?" James Kalin said.

"Ready," Warren answered, opening his eyes, and took a half-step forward toward the golden chain inside the pentarium.

"Too far!" James warned, from his left.

"Not far enough," Russell Cinea said, from his right.

Warren concluded that he was just right. He raised his voice in the first syllables of the summoning charm, and the rest of the Demonology Department joined in.

"Inquiring spirit," they intoned. "Adventurer in the arcane realms, Lord of Darkness, seeker of knowledge, hear us! Teach us!"

Warren was invoking his colleagues as much as the demons with these epithets, and he mentally divided them into those who knew this and those who didn't. The senior faculty nearest him-Russell Cinea, James Kalin, the herbalist Anders Regan and Cham Ligalla the exorcist-knew it. Their powers, more subtle and self-aware than their colleagues', made the foundation of the circle of magic beginning to fill the pentarium.

The pentarium at the Royal Academy of the Arcane Arts and Sciences lay belowground in a cavern under the Magic Building, dug into the ley-line itself and humming with power. A circular room, plated with gold and almost featureless except for the door and the safety switch in the wall behind Warren, it shone with a pale yellow light. The thirteen magicians of the Demonology Department stood outside a gold safety chain that stretched, knee-height, between five gold posts set a meter in from the chamber's edge. Within the chain lay the pentacle itself, drawn in blood.

Warren stood at the side furthest from the pentarium door, where he could look across at the junior faculty who stood by it. That was the only perk of heading the Demonology Department. He got to stand furthest from the door, so if anything went wrong the demon would have more time to dismember him. That was how one got out of heading the department, Warren had said, but it wasn't true. Only two administrators had left that way.

The demonologists wore blue paper smocks, belted with gold chains from which hung the Academy's ward and other protective charms, and all had gold chains around their necks. Warren's chain was a gift from his wife Lilian and his mother Bosie, made of square medallions so heavy they needed a counterweight at the back of his neck. James Kalin wore a thinner necklace, decorated with gold roses. Some of the roses had fallen off, leaving unsightly lumps of solder, but it was a gift from Kalin's daughter and he wore it nevertheless. Cinea, a bachelor, wore the standard chain available from any lab supplies catalog.

When they began the second verse of the charm, Warren always took what might be a last look at his colleagues. They stood in a lopsided circle and a row of reflected magicians stood behind them, with their backs to the circle as if they were uninterested in their fellows.

"Spirit of knowledge, enlighten us," they chanted, flattering the demons and themselves. "Join our discourse. We open our minds to your wisdom; we invite you."

This was Theodora Whin's language, and her magic glowed warmer with every word. Even though she had pulled back to lean casually against the wall, and Warren could only see her nail-bitten hand reaching around the curve of the circle, her power stretched across the room as if she were willing to define the entire project, if invited to.

The same language enraged Linus Ukadnian, the geomancer who towered over the other side of the circle. Linus was the only person wearing anything around his neck except a gold chain; he had on a bow tie, but he was so fierce that nobody dared smile at it. The next clauses were more to his taste. "Sages of the nether realm," he chanted, as if every word were a reproach to his colleagues. "Seekers after truth, hear us!" Linus and Teddy between them sent an arc of clashing magics right across the pentarium, and their colleagues' powers-cold and warm, crisp and relaxed-filled in the chinks around it.

The junior demonologists in front of the door kept up the chant without adding much of their own personalities to it. Neil Torecki spoke with the most energy, his red curls bobbing. He cheated every few minutes, reading from crib notes written on his arm. Isaac Graham's face was screwed up as he concentrated on remembering the spell. And Hiram Rho, the natural philosopher standing right in front of the door, odd man out at this, his first conjuration-Rho was a mess.

Rho was in his twenties, a little, wiry, tree-climbing sort of man, with blond hair that stood out horizontally over his ears and pale blue eyes. His hands were small and filthy. His expression was sour. His stance was belligerent. What would happen, Warren wondered, if Rho were so grubby as to not make skin contact with the colleagues holding his hands? He looked the kind to be wearing a broken chain, mended with old twist ties... Warren shivered, imagining the circle broken and his faculty disemboweled. 'How did this happen?' the dean would ask. 'Did you know the man was incompetent? Did you suspect it?'

He felt himself go cold and then a comforting thought burst on him like sunlight. He was the one furthest from the door. He'd be the one disemboweled, not the one answering questions. Warren gave a sigh of relief and noticed that he was even colder, shivering harder, and the other magicians were all looking to him. They all felt the cauld grue that meant a demon stood among them, lured into the pentarium by the summoning charm.

Warren stepped forward another half-pace and raised his voice in the final verse of the incantation, the others chiming in at each word, and he felt his magicians come back from wherever they had been. All their attention was on him and on the words they were speaking, words about themselves and how much they wanted to meet and talk with one of the most powerful arcane creatures. With every word, Warren felt pleasure and anticipation rise warm through his whole body and out into the circle, his magic meeting, clashing and harmonizing with his colleagues' until they formed one thing greater and more complex than any one of them, something any self-respecting demon must investigate. Red smoke began to rise in the inner pentacle, whirling like a distracted tornado, and its cold hit against the circle as if it were feeling for places it could pry apart, and finding none.


Rho had no opinion about the words of the invocation. His sour look was based more on seeing that Neil Torecki had written the charm on his arm, instead of wasting time memorizing it. Not that Rho wanted to do anything so unprofessional-it was bad enough working at this second-rate institution, without lowering his standards to meet theirs-but the fact that Neil had a trick and had not shared it confirmed Rho's opinions about the other faculty. About humans in general.

Hiram Rho, natural philosopher and misanthrope, discovered he could understand birds at the age of eight, while watching the neighbor's pigeons. The neighbor came home two days later, and had squab for dinner.

By ten, Rho could hear all the creatures in the barnyard. He ate his own severest critic, picking her out of the crowd around the chicken coop, and after that they watched their tongues around him, but the gift had already gone too far. From sunrise to sunset Rho heard the clamor of wild birds and beasts, from sundown to dawn the arguments of frogs and crickets. When the cries of insects his father poisoned in the fields started drowning out his own family, Rho bolted.

The first bad things that happened to Rho on the streets of Kasidora were his own fault, for listening to the first people he met. The rest were his own fault for not listening to any other people. They were the sort of things animals couldn't warn him about. The tips he picked up on the street did keep him out of some kinds of trouble, though-the kinds of trouble alley cats wanted to avoid, the kinds that involved being shut up and bathed, fed nice food, being flea-combed and having their balls cut off. The kinds that kept them away from casual sex and violence.

Rho lived eight months on the streets of Kasidora without taking advice from a single human being, until he heard a human speaking cat. By that time he had combined street urchin hygiene with alley cat manners. His mentor was later to say that Rho's true talent lay in making the worst of whatever was offered. Certainly, he had never been able to make understanding animals into any kind of communication. The cats ignored his attempts to sound out their language. So he had listened to the person who could speak with cats. He had followed through alleys, farther and farther from his familiar lairs each time, finally up to an old house by the gates of the university where a plate of scraps sat just inside the open door. The cat-speaker, Baristes, watched in the window, letting strays make their way into the warm rooms in their own time.

In the dark house, Rho learned to speak cat and pigeon. He learned about wine and fabric and the manners of the gentry, but none of it struck home. No more capable of luxury than an alley cat and treated as a curio rather than a servant, Rho learned to endure civilization but not to construct it, and when he transferred from Baristes' mansion to the college barracks he relapsed into squalor as easily as any of the other boys. By then, though, Rho could talk to the animals. He knew his talent was called natural philosophy, and was shared by few. He knew that human rule and human reasoning were arbitrary, designed by people who didn't believe that other creatures truly existed, and that natural philosophers were no more beholden to their own species than to any other.

Small wonder that Warren looked at Rho with carefully concealed dismay and sought his wife's sympathy. Knowledgeable as the mages of Osyth were, as acquainted as they were with interview protocols, with courtly Kasidora and with the oversweet image of natural philosophy, they could not have guessed that the young man who had acquitted himself so respectably in seminars and job interviews would revert to a filthy, hostile scavenger as soon as he was established at the Royal Academy.

The cauld grue swept through the pentarium and Rho, who had been half-lost in thoughts of how unsatisfactory his colleagues were, jumped. Those same colleagues were all that stood between him and the demon materializing in the pentacle. Rho hoped he had been wrong about them.