The Conjurer’s Bird by Martin Davies. Copyright 2005. Literary/Historical Fiction. ISBN 1-4000-9733-9
The Story: By all accounts, the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, discovered in 1774, doesn’t exist. A single specimen was captured in the South Seas, preserved, and gifted to naturalist Joseph Banks, where it remained in his collection until it disappeared one day, never to be seen again. Except for a drawing by Georg Forster, no trace of the bird could be found. Two hundred years later, it continues to mystify naturalists.
The first thing you need to know about The Conjurer’s Bird is that it is not an exciting book. If you’re looking for car chases and shootouts, you’ve picked the wrong kind of mystery. Set mainly in London and Lincolnshire, it’s a quiet and relaxing read.
The Conjurer’s Bird is still an immersing book. It jumps between three storylines: the star-crossed romance of Joseph Banks and the elusive Miss B—n, in 1774; John Fitzgerald’s search for the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, two hundred years later; and the third (much smaller) storyline being Fitz’s recounting of his grandfather’s expedition to find a rare African peacock, that seems to mirror much of both Banks’ and Fitz’s stories.
Although not everything is as it seems in all three stories, the twists are not very surprising, and it could benefit from a little more intrigue and suspense. It is also thoroughly researched and (as much as a fictional book can be) historically accurate, although the time period of 1774 could use a bit more description— something to really set the mood and let us know that we’ve traveled 200 years into the past.
Style: True, nearly half of the story is spent doing research in libraries, but it is rarely a boring read. Martin Davies has an excellent grasp of wordcraft, his style can only be described as charming and subtly humorous.
Technique: The Conjurer’s Bird is written in alternating first-person and third-person. Modern-day is written in first-person from the point of view of John Fitzgerald, and 1774 is written from the POVs of Joseph Banks and Miss B—n. The transition between the two is a bit off, mostly on the third-person side of things and especially in the beginning, as though Davies was less comfortable with that form. Both forms smooth out before the middle of the book, however.
Characters: Our main character is John Fitzgerald, a conservationist/taxidermist/authority on extinct birds, apparently rich (it doesn’t seem like a very lucrative business, but he appears to have no problem traveling on a whim and staying in expensive hotels). He is quiet and thoughtful, although not much else. Most of the events on his side of the story only seem to happen around him— not necessarily to him.
He has a tenant named Katya, a Swedish university student who lives upstairs, who is more of a catalyst. She assists him in researching the bird (accompanying him nearly everywhere, which does beg the question of where and when she attends class), often uncovering important names and dates otherwise missed. She is more vivacious and engaging than Fitz, but Davies would have done well to liven up both of these characters.
In 1774, Joseph Banks is a young English naturalist, eager and passionate. He tends to wear his heart on his sleeve, making him more relatable than most of the other characters (even Fitz, whose head we’re inside for half of the book). He can be brash and hasty, though in general a good-hearted sort.
Miss B—n is quiet, reclusive, and mysterious. She rarely shows what she feels or seems affected by things going on around her, appearing quite detached and at times a frustrating character to read. Somewhat ethereal, she spends her time drawing and being enigmatic. It’s a full-time job.
All in all, The Conjurer’s Bird gets a 3.5 out of 5 stars: Entertaining, engaging, but ultimately unremarkable.