After two strong stories, each with substantial depth beneath the pure excitements of the thriller aspect, ‘Birds of the Master’ comes as rather a disappointment. It begins in media res, with Valerian and Laureline’s spaceship crashed and inextricable on a strange planet and the two agents travelling on a skiff across the ocean trying to get somewhere, without instruments, having to hope that there is somewhere for them to get.
Except that they are swept unstoppably over a great, Niagara-like falls, sinking stunned into algae in which they will drown, except for their rescue, dredged up onto a great boat touring various ocean spots, harvesting the algae. Whereupon they are made slaves, each given different roles. Slaves of whom? The Master, who has no other name and no other role than to rule this planet, exacting tribute from everyone, of whatever offworld race, whose vessel has crashed here.
And the Master’s rule is enforced by his birds, great swirling flocks of vampire-like birds, distributing poison with their bites, but sufficiently effective by their appearance in the skies, a dark and foreboding mandala.
Naturally, what Val and Laureline have to do is to lead a rebellion, find the Master and force him to relinquish his power – if his be an appropriate pronoun here – and free his planet’s slave population.
And that’s what they do, in a story that is rather dismally limited to just doing that, by means of a literally linear pursuit across the planet’s ever-changing surface. No sidesteps, no diversions, no curlicues of story, just straight from point A to point Z, featuring twenty-four other alphabetical points between. Not literally, of course. But a straight line.
Val and Laureline are not the only ones prepared to rebel at the outset. They fall in with Sül, of the planet Manadil, another recent crash landing who has not yet been broken to the fear the Birds of Madness induce: Sül does not yet have the whips in his head.
Laureline’s flash of independence over the last couple of stories is undercut, surely consciously, by her attitude to the slave work clothes she has to wear. True, they’re disgusting rags that any self-respecting human would object to, but it’s not the filth, stink and raggedness that has our favourite redhead wrinkling up her nose in disgust, but the design: the ensemble lacks in chic… The problem is that, if this is meant to be a joke, it’s an ill-fitting one for emphasising Laureline’s feminine instincts by making her appear more concerned with slave-clothes than actual slavery.
The first phase ends with arrival at the cities of the Master. The planet’s entire population has gathered, bringing ingredients to be prepared for the Great Meal of the Master. It is taken into a great carved entrance to a massive cavern and tipped in, in front of a starved population. Meagre leftovers are returned for the starving, half-crazy masses. Everyone can rest until the Master is hungry again, whereupon the whole cycle begins afresh. Though there is nothing fresh about this.
Sül tries to fight back but ends up being thrown into the Pit of the Loonies. Val and Laureline try to defend him, to organise resistance, but are turned on themselves. Laureline is knocked out by a thrown stone, at which point Val turns a bit violent. Once he’s treated her, there’s another dubious moment when Laureline throws a hissy-fit over everything that’s happened to her, including being dressed like a hag and wants to abandon everyone, go back to their ship and get off this planet. Val manages to get her back on track over the need to rescue Sül.
Down in the Pit, the inhabitants are a bit more independent minded and capable of intelligent talk, even if a couple of them haven’t grasped that this is more than just a badly-organised travel tour. They’re the ones who have been bitten by the Master’s Birds, who have been poisoned, and who are going very slowly out of their minds.
They’re not exactly prime rebellion material, but they’re game. Val’s promised his partner they can go after they’ve recovered Sül, but their plan for a silent running departure gets blown to high heaven by the Pit-denizens’ rather loud leaving, so rebellion it is. As soon as they cross into the mist-shrouded Forbidden Lands, the Master’s private domain, pursuit ends and the linear journey resumes. The two tourist ladies design some chic and hot looking clothes for Laureline, mini-skirted of course: no more fashion blues for her.
They’re almost there when the Birds attack. The poisoned try to shield Val, Laureline and Sül, but are unsuccessful. Finally, our trio and the least affected descend into the pit, where they find the Master, a massive, shapeless, jelloid substance, writhing with tentacles beneath its pale sheath. It’s still feeding. Val tries to disrupt it by cutting off the inflows from the Klaar prepared in this cycle but is beaten down telepathically by fury and anger, a denial of his moral right to challenge the Master in the light of the obscenities of Earth’s past actions. Laureline is similarly stopped, and Sül and everyone else. All are helpless.
Until Laureline redeems herself for everything in the story so far, determined to resist and understanding that they are being ripped apart because they are individuals, but if they stand together, present a collective front, they can drive the Master away.
And they do.
For a moment the ‘Loonies’ waver about taking over, until one of Valerian’s better speeches – well, Laureline applauds it – shames them out of it. A united planet, a free planet can and will benefit all. It will also lend a hand to freeing the Spatiotemporal cruiser so our Agents can head back to Galaxity. There’s a comic twist: where did the Master go? If they were to only look in their rear-view mirror…
Is that a serious ending, boding consequences, or just a joke? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Despite some decent moments throughout, ‘Birds of the Master’ is still a massive let-down, a one-note story with a predictable ending and nothing larger to show or tell us. If I were rating these stories, I’d mark this one down to a C, maybe even a C minus. Better things are to come. Starting with the next story.