The Conjuror’s Bird

ISBN: 0340896167
ISBN 13: 9780340896167
By: Martin Davies

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2006 Currently Reading Default Favorites Fiction Historical Historical Fiction Mystery Romance To Read

About this book

In 1774, an unusual bird was spotted on Captain Cook's second expedition to the South Seas. This single specimen was captured, preserved, and brought back to England and no other bird of its kind was ever seen again. The bird was given to naturalist Joseph Banks, who displayed it proudly in his collection until it too disappeared. Were it not for a colored drawing created by the ship's artist, it would seem that the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta had never existed.Two hundred years later, naturalist John Fitzgerald gets a call from an old friend asking him to join the search for the bird's remains. He traces the bird's history, uncovering surprising details about the role of a woman known only as Miss B in Joseph Banks's life and career. Could she be the key to solving the mystery to finally finding the lost Bird of Ulieta? Seamlessly leaping between two time periods,The Conjurer's Bird is at once the story of Joseph Banks's secret life and of Fitz's thrilling and near-impossible race to find the elusive bird

Reader's Thoughts


This book interested me from the mysterious sounding blurb and the title. It changes between two different times to tell the story of The Mysterious Bird of Ulieta, the only one of its kind ever found which was only to go missing again for over 200 years. It tells the story of the people surrounding it, before it was first discovered and the story of the people who are looking for it despite all the odds pointing to it's non-existence. I enjoyed this book, it was neither very bad nor very good, but a pleasant way to pass the time. The title was rather too fanciful for the content - The Conjuror's Bird, yet there is no magical element in this book at all nor is there anyone who could possibly be a "conjuror." I liked reading the character's stories, although the two main characters weren't what I expected. I expected Fitz "who has lost too much" to be a hardened, no-nonsense, straight-talking rebel and yet he was written more childishly, more in-between; he was more indecisive than direct. I expected Joseph Banks to be a young, naive yet enthusiastic sensitive man with a thirst for knowledge and a loving, unselfish nature. He was that at the beginning and yet there were things I liked in him and things I disliked, the latter eventually outweighing the former as the book went on and he got more and more egotistical, selfish and hypocritical. He seemed to change very quickly, one minute thinking one thing and then he'd fly by the seat of his pants and change his mind, and a supposed independant woman seemed okay with this. But I did enjoy the blossoming romance, even if it wasn't exactly Disney-esque. Overall, an average book and an enjoyable yet not brilliantly engaging read and plot. It managed to keep my interest (more than the last book I read) for the duration of the book and I'm not at all interested in stuffed birds, exotic, extinct or otherwise, so the author must have done something right.

Louise Wilson

This book beautifully combines all the genres so dear to my heart as a family history writer - history, mystery and romance. Keen family history researchers will identify strongly with Davies’ account of turning up at Archives offices at opening time and sitting there all day searching for the identity of the mysterious 'Miss B'. Davies perfectly depicts the excitement in the search for the identity of an elusive forebear.On Goodreads there are plenty of descriptions of the premise of this book, with plenty of four star reviews by a reading audience based in the northern hemisphere and largely ignorant of the work of Sir Joseph Banks (those outside UK botanical circles, I mean). I think this book resonates even better with an Australian audience, especially readers in Sydney, where Banks is very ‘big’.I much preferred the Banks chapters in the book, which alternated with chapters set in modern times. The hypothetical romance for Joseph Banks was quite moving and even convincing, given society’s rules of the day. Banks had plenty of affairs but never married, and it makes sense that a female of serious demeanour and purpose, and equally scientifically-minded as he, had spoilt his taste for the frivolous women of his own class as wifely candidates. Davies’ version of events changed my mind about Banks – hitherto I did not think much of him as a person, because of the drama he created over his personal cabin space aboard the Resolution, resulting in his last-minute withdrawal in 1772 from Cook’s second expedition to the South Seas. Now I can see that there could have been another side to the Banks story.In the alternate chapters, I found the narrative about an academic named Fitzgerald (Fitz) a bit disjointed and sometimes hard to follow, and the characters not always convincing. The bits about Fitz’s grandfather seemed to hang in space a bit, and Fitz’s connection to the young graduate student Katya seemed very shadowy.The history of the later eighteenth century intrigues me. So much changed in the world – the ascent of scientific enquiry (eg the Longitude story), the age of cultural enlightenment, the start of the industrial revolution, the growth of democratic government (independence of USA, French Revolution). My early convict forebears who came on First and Second Fleet add a personal connection to this period, as do forebears who helped establish the mail coach system in England in the 1780s and 1790s. That particular communications revolution underpinned the rapid growth of the British economy. Another direct forebear, Dr George Young, established the first Botanic Garden in the western hemisphere, on the Island of St Vincent in the Caribbean in the 1760s. Young was present when the breadfruit tree arrived from the Pacific, so I have personal, albeit remote, connections to William Bligh and Joseph Banks.For me this book was a page-turner. It was very clever of novelist Martin Davies to think of weaving the different strands of his story together in the way he did. And very clever of him to piece together the missing links in the life of Sir Joseph Banks and come up with the imaginative narrative he produced in the book. Oh to be so creative with my own historical research – but I fear that the lifelong habits of a non-fiction writer run deep.As an author, the title of a book always attracts my attention, but I’m still not quite sure why the book was entitled The Conjuror’s Bird. Who was the conjuror? Did the title of the book refer to its final twist in the tale? I don't want to spoil the ending of the book for readers - so I won't speculate here!


I really enjoyed this book and found it fascinating so highly recommend. The book offers a clever plot and a good mystery, with bits of romance, history, and genealogy stirred in. It is actually two stories in one with a third theme running through it. First story is the modern day mystery with naturalist Fitzgerald's search for the long lost Ulieta Bird. The second is a Victorian romance of the naturalist Banks that originally had the bird. The third theme running through it is of Fitzgerald's grandfather's futile searching for the peacock of the Congo. The stories are linked and run parallel. Davies weaves the stories together seamlessly and the characters are very engaging. I really liked that the birds and some of the people were real and found myself stopping to read more about them on Wikipedia


I really liked this book and the switching bewteeen the two different timelines each chapter. I loved both era's but probably enjoyed the historical pieces the best - the way of life, the stigma associated with a young woman not being a virgin and its implications for the rest of her life. The adventures overseas to draw wildlife (no cameras), and the inability to communicate quickly with people on the other side of the world (no phones or even telegrams) made me focus on how very much has changed in the world and how we are both richer and poorer for it.


I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The ending was not completely satisfying, but I liked that too. The author technique of unfolding each story slowly in each chapter captivated my interest from the beginning. Switching voice from first person to third person was interesting and helped differentiate the chapters. The characters for the most part were very human and believable. I enjoyed the authors writing which kept me turning pages and made me look forward to the next reading.The historical information at the end made the book more interesting.


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.However.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.I wish we could give half-stars here, as it deserves more than three but less than four. It's entertaining, engaging, but ultimately unremarkable.


12/09/07TITLE/AUTHOR: THE CONJUROR'S BIRD by Martin DaviesRATING: 4/BGENRE/PUB DATE/# OF PGS: Fiction/2005/306 pgs SERIES/STAND ALONE: Stand AloneTIME/PLACE: 1770's/South Seas & present, UKCHARACTERS: James Banks/Naturalist;John Fitzgerald/Natural History Professor.FIRST LINES:That Thursday evening I was working late, removing the skull ofa dead owlCOMMENTS:11/24/07 rec via bookcrossing ring/ray. Alternate stories between past 1770's & present. The Ulieta bird was an ordinary thrush type bird found in the South Seas and now extinct. Supposedly there is one preserved bird left and a collector hires Fitz to find the Conjuror's bird. A mix of history, mystery & romance.


Just found this on a second-hand shelf (right after I expounded upon my virtuous ability to resist buying any more books, riiiiiight). It's an "uncorrected proof" so I hope that doesn't mean it's full of crazy mistakes, although if it is that might be encouraging to this aspiring author. It's getting lukewarm reviews here, but I'm not going to let that discourage me. The design, chapter titles, premise and first paragraph are all so lovely that I'm just going to ASSUME that the content is also enchanting. Puzzles, stuffed birds, mystery, 18th century naturalists, extinct creatures, a bit of danger? Yes please. ***Ok, it wasn't quite as edge-of-your seat exciting as I thought it might be, but it set a lovely atmosphere (lots of sitting in English pubs, by the fire, while the rain pelted at the windows, pondering the mysterious bird) and I was definitely engaged. There was one loose end that I didn't quite think was tied up, or at least I missed it (maybe it was nothing, just something I thought was leading somewhere). I liked the historical details and it's easy to see how this could be what happened, though there's no reason to think it did. At the start I was sure that the relationships between the men ("tortured" academics/adventurers) and the women (it would be nice if the descriptions of them didn't include so many diminutive adjectives) would irritate me, but thankfully there wasn't as much focus on that as I thought there might be. I will definitely read his other stuff, just got The Unicorn Road in at the library so that's probably next.


The Conjurer's Bird is an amusing way to pass the time. It's definitely not a gripping thriller on the caliber of Stephen King or Dan Simmons, although it might be a step above Dean Koontz. Martin Davies has unearthed an extremely interesting piece of history and wrapped it up in a somewhat interesting novel. Too bad none of it's true. As it stands, Davies tells the story of a character who is not particularly interesting who is investigating the story of one who is.Based on the disappearance of the bird known to ornithologists (scientists who study birds) only as the "Mysterious Bird of Ulieta," The Conjurer's Bird tells both the story of its original disappearance and the modern-day search for it by Fitz, a taxidermist, and his tenant, Katya. Fitz is introduced in an interesting way- I mean, how many taxidermists do you know?- but soon becomes a dull, two-dimensional character. There are one or two spikes of intrigue later in the story, but even those are predictable and boring if you've ever read Sherlock Holmes.However, Davies spends half the novel in a very unique approach to the mystery. According to history, the bird disappeared from the collection of one Joseph Banks, an 18th century naturalist, never to be seen again. Every other chapter in this novel is spent exploring Banks' background, his mistress known to history only as Miss B, and the fictional story of what happened to the bird. It's told only in pronouns (he and she), but we always know exactly who Davies is referring to. The language is beautiful, and the story wraps beautifully into actual historical documents, which makes it more believable and fascinating than other historical fiction.Unfortunately, this book only fits into the background with other novels rather than standing out. Despite the 380-page length of the book, Davies seems to rush through the plot in an attempt to tell two parallel stories. During the tale of Banks and Miss B, he relates emotions and motivations in deep, moving, descriptive language; in the story of Fitz, he hardly scratches the surface, creating an impenetrable hero whom we barely get attached to before the story ends.Banks himself seems to be the central character, although Davies has the unfortunate habit of introducing too many unimportant side characters and name-dropping. He includes a lot of minor scenes that don't serve to develop the characters any more, which also clouds the book with useless information. For example, he includes the mention of the search for many works of a botanical painter called Roitelot, but these feel almost peripheral, despite their claim to importance in the story.Altogether, the character we most end up knowing is Miss B, who doesn't even have a real name. Through most of the book, she is just referred to as "she." Davies understands and unifies her character the most, leaving us with a clear impression of just who she is, despite her invisibility to history. Davies has created a memorable character, both through her quiet words and lack of identity.

Mary Lowe

Engaging story. Love the tale between two periods of time and the historic links.


This was a complete chore to read. Boring first person narrator finds himself immersed in a boring mystery/wild goose chase (the wild goose being the mysterious Bird of Ulieta), paralleled with the story of a boring 18th century circumnavigator's boring relationship with his boring mistress.


** spoiler alert ** This book is actually one big meh. I've been looking forward to reading it for months but always put it off, and maybe it was the anticipation or the blurb, or my own shortcomings as a reader but it was just an epic disappointment.The concept of the book is decent but the execution was poor. I never felt invested enough in the relationships to care about the present story (which is a shame as I felt the Fitz/Gabby backstory was fascinating and heartbreaking and I wanted to read more about it) and the back story was okay, but not enough to really make you give a damn about the quest to find this extinct stuffed bird and a load of paintings.I think the book could have benefited from another 100 pages to flesh out the characters. I mean when we didn't even get to see the goodbye between Gabby and Fitz despite the history between them (in their 20 pages of interaction in the book we learn they were lovers, were married, lost a child, he left her and she continued to write to him for the 15 years they were apart but never divorced and the ending just felt so anti-climatic. Fitz and his student, Katya (who I think we were supposed to be rooting for?? I don't know - random insertion of someone to move the story along I guess but she made no indent into the story beyond solving all the clues and being the romantic foil to contrast Fitz past relationship and his new one, I think.Maybe I missed something epic that made it standout as something memorable, or maybe my love of past/futures colliding just wasn't enough to overlook a book that fundamentally is about taxidermy and is 100 pages of characterisation short of being worthwhile as a character driven book. It definitely improved in terms of readability as it progressed, but to be honest - I was expecting so much more from it when I picked it up. It's definitely not one that will be getting picked up again anytime soon.


I always know I like a book when I can't wait to go to bed to get back to reading it. Towards the end I also couldn't wait for my one year old son to go to bed so I could read it instead of doing the other million things that needed doing. The story concerns the search for a missing specimen of a bird that no longer exists, once owned by 18th century naturalist Joseph Banks. There are two tales running parallel - that of the modern day scientist looking for the bird, and that of Joseph Banks and his mysterious lover. For some reason I have developed a fascination for those collectors of old, so this book fed that interest no end. The only thing that I would have liked to have done was fallen in love with the characters. I like them well enough, but I didn't develop the deep empathy that elevates good books to great ones. Still, I was in the mood for a good plot in a well written book, and this is what I got.

Joana Almeida

Gostei imenso deste livrinho, comprei-o tão barato, sem saber nada sobre ele, que não tinha quaisqueres expectativas, mas acabei por ler uma bela obra.


Closer to 2.5..a decent historical novel which dives back and forth from present time to the 1700s to tell the tale of the non-fictional naturalist Joseph Banks and his expedition with Cook to the Pacific islands and his love affair with an unsuitable woman who shared his passion for nature.The modern thread of the story is an attempt by a naturalist,still healing from familial sorrow,who is intrigued by the legend of a rare bird found by Banks on the voyage which may still exist somewhere in England.There's not much plot tension or in depth characterization of the players, but it's a decent read(fairly intelligent writing,some good atmospheric renditions of life in the 1700s,a not-too sappy romance,a strong female character who reminds us of the few options for women in earlier times), tho ultimately I suspect you are not likely to remember this story for long after you've closed the book.

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