Liz Bourke reviews The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, Margaret Killjoy (Tor.com Publishing 978–0-7563-9736-2, $14.99, 128pp, tp) July 2017. Cover by Mark Smith.
Margaret Killjoy’s The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is a peculiar, compelling, and atmospheric novella. I’d never heard of Killjoy before this novella, though I understand she’s written plenty of fiction and nonfiction, largely from an anarchist point of view.
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is set in a future USA, though one that’s just barely the future, and really quite strongly resembles the present. Mutated animals are unremarkable, due to some unspecified polluted-water problem, and the world seems even more precarious in terms of labour and class relations than it is right now – though this may be primarily down to the protagonist’s point of view.
Danielle Cain is an anarchist and a vagabond who’s spent most of her life on the road. Her best friend Clay recently committed suicide in Denver, but the last place he spent any time before that was in a community called Freedom IA. Danielle wants to understand why he killed himself, so she’s headed to Freedom to look for answers. She knows this is a quixotic sort of quest, but Clay was her friend, and she’s committed to it.
Freedom IA is an anarchist squatter community, a relatively large one, in a town that’s otherwise abandoned. The community appeals to Danielle: it’s the kind of anarchist community she’s always wanted to see, egalitarian, communitarian, without a hierarchy. But it also has magic, magic that’s killing people. The evening Danielle arrives, she sees a three-horned deer, attended by dead-but-still-moving prey animals, kill a man and eat the heart out of his chest.
The three-horned deer is a guardian spirit, known as Uliksi. It turns out that four members of the community, including Clay, took it upon themselves to summon a guardian spirit that killed people who preyed on others, after a member of the Freedom community murdered another member, but now the guardian has turned on its summoners. The community is torn between trying to unsummon it, and keeping it without knowing if it may ever be unsummoned again after its summoners are dead.
Young firebrand Erik champions keeping the guardian, arguing that the deaths are a small price to pay for the security that Uliksi brings their community – but most other people disagree. The conflict splits the community, and Danielle finds herself, along with tattoo artist Bryce and a houseful of anarchists, at the centre of efforts to figure out how to unsummon Uliksi and to prevent more bloodshed. Matters come to a head when Erik’s faction informs the police about a member of the community with warrants for murder, and the police descend on Freedom. Danielle is caught in the middle of a face-off between heavily armed police, two separate factions of anarchists, and a guardian spirit whose motives no one really understands.
Told in the first person from Danielle’s point of view, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is thoughtful, well-characterised, well-constructed, and tightly paced. Where Killjoy excels is in the atmosphere she creates in this novella. The lingering presence of the unknown, unknowable, implacable spirit is juxtaposed against the sharply observed anarchist collective, familiar and alive and full of queer bodies and ways of living. The blend of horror and social commentary makes for an interesting experience, and, I think, an effective one.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the September 2017 issue of Locus.