Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird, released in 2005 under the Warner Aspect imprint, is the third novel set in her Warchild universe. It can be seen as a parallel novel to Warchild and Burndive, covering a large amount of the same time period, and quite a few of the same events. This time, however, our protagonist and narrator is Yuri Kirov, pirate and erstwhile villain. We’ve been trained across the course of two previous novels to see Kirov as a negative character by virtue of his deeds and his allegiance – pirates as represented by Vincenzo Falcone are, after all, the self-centered instigators of violence from Jos’ and Ryan’s points of view, unredeemed by any desires to work for the human/striv races, focussed entirely on their own (often perverted, always commercialised) desires. Cagebird, without turning Yuri into a victim without agency, is an attempt to change this black-and-white picture into a more nuanced chiaroscuro.
Lowachee’s previous novels were notable for their thematic shifts in person and tense, moving her protagonists from their un-intimate and not-completely truthful narrative stances to a first-person (and in Jos’ case, present tense) narrative that stood for their readiness to look at their past and present without flinching – and therefore to face their futures with some degree of maturity. Yuri Kirov’s narrative begins in the first-person present tense – by the thematic rules established in the previous novels, he straddles the thin line between falsehood/lack of agency and the final stages of the ever-incomplete Bildungsroman narrative: “All my thoughts are honest, bitch. [Pg. 7]” It makes Cagebird a brutally truthful novel – Yuri doesn’t spare the reader from event, evaluation or emotion, and the change from Jos’ and Ryan’s sometimes frustrating dialogues is both a relief and a burdensome complexity.
Yuri Kirov is twenty-two years old, and he’s incarcerated in an EarthHub prison following the events of Burndive. And Black Ops agents offer him a choice: work for them to bring down Falcone’s still-extant pirate network in exchange for freedom, and protection for fellow-inmate Stefano Finch. Yuri agrees, as much for Finch as for himself. The novel follows Yuri and Finch as they reintegrate with Yuri’s pirate family and untangle the layered game the Black Ops agents are playing with and against them. Interspersed with this forward moving narrative is Yuri’s reminiscences of his life, from childhood to just before his capture – this past-tense narrative takes up about half the novel. This past-tense narrative (practically a different, cleaner language) offers both the story of Yuri’s life and a shift from his hard-bitten, resigned, harshly organic present-tense dialogue, which is dense with analogies to blood-flowing and -letting, tactile and painful. (The shifts put Ryan’s wordsmithing and Jos’ direct lies to shame, and I do think that whatever it’s other faults, Cagebird is the strongest stylistic novel of the three.) This narrative, obsessed as it is with the permeability, the breakability, of the human body, controls what Yuri allows us to see and know. (Mark!)
Yuri’s home colony was destroyed when he was four years old – it is taken from granted this was due to “strit” (striviirc-na) action. Yuri’s family, minus his MIA mother and younger brother (and dead grandmother) are relocated to a refugee planet where his father indulges himself in a downward-spiral of despair and resignation and Yuri runs wild with Bo-Sheng, a slightly older boy. And when Marcus Falcone comes to recruit them for his ship, they’re easy prey. If one reads this novel immediately after Warchild, the differences between Yuri’s and Jos’ parents are frighteningly clear: Jos’ parents taught him to mistrust Falcone’s brand of exploitation, Yuri’s father did not. And more worrisomely, Falcone is shown to be a man who can learn from his previous mistakes: his interactions with Yuri are the extreme opposite of his behaviour in Warchild, and one cannot blame the ten-year old for trusting him as he would trust a parent. (His own parent has proved remarkably unworthy of that sort of dependant trust, after all.) In many ways, this is Falcone’s novel – he dominates Yuri’s narratives as he dominates his ship, and one can extemporise much of his character and his positions in the war against the striviirc-na through Yuri’s musings.
Yuri grows up a pirate protégé – Falcone’s protégé – and when he is thirteen is indoctrinated as a geisha. His relationship with the other members of the hanamachi – his geisha peers and mentors – could stand for his aims and goals and needs through the entire novel – his need for a family, his need for agency – to be in control of his life and loves. [Yuri’s prominent relationships in both of the narrative strands are disturbingly dependant and fraught with the (often fulfilled) potential for betrayal. His relationship with Stefano Finch in particular is one that I would have liked the novel to have taken even further – to whatever conclusion – because in its current state it seems not a relationship that can last beyond Yuri’s (and Stefano’s) healing and maturation to adulthood. It makes for a strangely resolved and yet unresolved closing.]
It’s an ambitious novel, and I think it’s simultaneously the strongest and weakest of the trilogy. It’s strengths lie in its emotive dual narrative, it’s unflinching gaze at a brutal and violent life, seen from the perspective of someone currently too fragile to deal with that life any longer. It makes few excuses, offering the unpalatable truth that perhaps excuses and even reasons cannot apply. It has extraordinarily beautiful prose, with strong characters and the possibility – but no more – of a happy ending. It shows us an aspect of the Warchild universe that that until now has been firmly villainised, and offers a faintly different perspective on how this part of the universe works.
The problem with Cagebird is that, while it fills in the Warchild universe, it does not take us ahead in the timeline – specifically, the timeline of the war/peace negotiations. Yuri’s life as a pirate is rooted in battle action and is tangentially related to the events of the war, but the novel has little direct impact on the overarching events that in Warchild and Burndive affect the protagonists’ personal lives. Yuri’s present tense narrative contains few surprises – in fact, it is depressingly predictable once you’ve read the previous two novels, fitting into patterns of surprise, betrayal and personal development. The past-tense interspersions have their shocking moments, where Yuri refuses to hide a traumatic event – and given that he is surrounded by people engaged in illegal activity and is Falcone’s personal protégé, trauma is not a rarity.
But there it is. Cagebird does not take our overarching plot forward. It even repeats – without giving us a radically new perspective – certain events from Burndive. (It does offer a great deal of potential for a fourth novel in the virtually unexplored new territory offered by Black Ops machinations, but in this novel the Black Ops remain a deus ex machina, unexamined and somewhat remote.) I imagine that if one reads the three novels in order, then Cagebird can come as a bitter disappointment, despite its stylistic, thematic and emotive power. It doesn’t offer a new story. Cagebird does work very well as a stand-alone novel – which is how I read it, before buying Warchild and Burndive and reading those in order.
The illusion of control is brittle at best, and Yuri is no longer capable of lying to himself – or to his audience. In a world full of blacks and whites Yuri must negotiate to find and accept the greys in the violence of which he is both subject and object, so that he may look not to his broken self but perhaps to something better. Cagebird is a powerful (if unsuspenseful) addition to the Warchild universe, one that opens new territories for future books to explore, but can stand well enough on its own if it so chooses.