Review: Plague Birds by Jason Sanford

Plague Birds

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.

‘Glowing red lines split their faces. Shock-red hair and clothes warn people to flee their approach. They are plague birds, the powerful merging of humans and artificial intelligences who serve as judges and executioners after the collapse of civilization.

‘And the plague birds’ judgment is swift and deadly, as Crista discovered as a child when she watched one kill her mother.

‘In a world of gene-modded humans constantly watched over by benevolent AIs, everyone hates and fears the plague birds. But to save her father and home village, Crista becomes the very creature she fears the most. And her first task as a plague bird is hunting down an ancient group of murderers wielding magic-like powers.

‘As Crista and her AI symbiote travel farther from home than she ever imagined, they are plunged into a strange world where she judges wrongdoers, befriends other outcasts, and uncovers an extremely personal conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions.’

Plague Birds

Plague Birds, by Jason Sanford, is set in a far, post-collapse future where humans look very different from today.

Not only do they sport animalistic features from ancestral genetic modification, but a select, marginalised few – the eponymous plague birds – share their bodies with powerful AIs whose role is to judge and execute wrongdoers.

When a plague bird, Derena, sustains ultimately life-ending injuries in an attack near 18-year-old Cristina (Crista) De Ane’s village, Crista reluctantly agrees to become the new host for Derena’s wise-cracking AI symbiote, Red Day.

Together, Crista and Red Day embark on a hero’s journey to a remote monastery, and then a legendary city, on the trail of Derena’s killers – who turn out to be part of a major threat to the status quo that’s been a long time in the making.

Jason Sanford’s short story, Little Fathers of Darkness, was one of my favourites in the Robotic Ambitions anthology, piquing my interest in Plague Birds, the novel that establishes the world it takes place in and the characters involved.

Something I really appreciated about the short story was how the author manages to explain the context – a world far removed from our own, where some people have justice-dispensing AIs living in their blood – simply and efficiently.

Plague Birds is just as easy to follow. There’s a lot to take in, but Sanford doles out the information on a need-to-know basis, through the characters where feasible, so you don’t feel bogged-down with exposition.

And what a captivating, imaginative world it is! To name but a few features: charming AIs who care for the humans of their assigned city/town/village; a forest where the trees attack the minds of those who try to pass through; a remote monastery that stores and protects (as best it can) all human knowledge; and the Obsidian Rise, the highly powerful monument-supercomputer at the heart of the city of Seed. This book is stuffed with ideas.

The human and AI characters (the ones we’re rooting for, anyway!) are also highly appealing. As a girl-next-door type who originally envisaged a much smaller life for herself, Crista is a reluctant plague bird to say the least, and this made me feel sympathetic towards her.

Red Day, meanwhile, is surprisingly likeable for a judge and executioner. Not only does it ease Crista into her new role relatively gently, but the pair have entertaining interactions throughout the story.

For example, Red Day is unamused by the game of “hide the kiss” Christa and the other young people used to play with their village AI, Blue, and isn’t exactly thrilled when Crista finds a love interest in young monk Desiada.

These are far from the only examples of humour in Plague Birds – something else I liked. From the story behind the name of the de Ane family’s mule, Eggbeater, to Desiada’s groanworthy jokes, to the antics of Diver – an incredibly powerful 20,000+ year-old entity living in the guise of a rather obnoxious tween girl – there’s a lot of fun to be had.

I’d love to spend more time with these characters and, if Little Fathers of Darkness is anything to go by, there’s a lot more mileage to be had from the Plague Birds world. I’m looking forward to seeing where Sanford takes things next.

Plague Birds is imaginative, entertaining, and strangely endearing.

Alice Violett's Picture

About Alice Violett

Writer of blogs and short stories, reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK