A timely fantasy
I was a bit conflicted about reading The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Owen—it sounded like just my kind of thing, but a rather stern friend on Goodreads panned it for ableism and said lots of nasty things about it, which made me pause. But it got such consistently good reviews from everyone else that I decided maybe she had a pre-emptive bee in her bonnet when she read it, and went ahead.
First of all, I can’t resist any reference to crows, ravens, magpies…. Second, just the description on Goodreads let me know that it was a book with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and that the protagonist and her caste were the scapegoats. I love a scapegoat.
What this book turns out to be (and I can’t decide if Owen purposefully wrote it that way or not, but she had to be aware) is a perfect analogy for Black Lives Matter. The Crows are the bottom-most caste in society, and their duty is wrapped up with their so-called luck: They are the only people on the planet who are immune to the plague. Thus, when a case of plague is reported, a beacon fire is lit and the Crows show up to collect the body and dispose of it before the infection spreads any further. They are also both celebrated (by the dying) and reviled (by everyone else) for being mercy killers: The plague is not a comfortable way to die, and if the sufferers ask for mercy, the Crows will deliver the killing stroke that puts them out of their misery. The only way to stop the plague’s spread is to burn the body and all possessions.
You would think that society would appreciate this service, which protects everyone but the sufferers from a hateful death, but instead the Crows are essentially treated as the equivalent of India’s Untouchables. Not only do they suffer from disparaging remarks and taunts (and sometimes thrown garbage and other insults), but some of the people who seek their assistance then turn around and are reluctant to reward them for their service. The Crows are dependent on the viatik (payment) for survival, since their sole duty is to roam the roads watching for plague beacons, and for that they must have resources—food, clothing, shoes, weapons, wagons. So the Crows have one answer for this, but they mostly suffer anything that comes rather than pull out this ultimate revenge: They refuse to dispose of the body, guaranteeing eventual death by plague to all in that village, which will be quarantined and burnt to the ground.
Fie, the protagonist, is the future chieftain of a band of Crows, and she is learning the various aspects of being a leader from her Pa, including delivering the killing stroke, and what her people call “bone magic”—they save the teeth of dead witches, which can be called upon to deliver various defenses, including inattention (invisibility) and fire. Fie has developed a justifiably cynical attitude in her 16 years as a Crow, watching her Pa and their troop receive more abuse than coin, and so when the royal palace—housing the pinnacle of castes, the Peacocks—sends up a plague beacon, she understandably hopes for a decent payout that will support her people for a while. Instead, the troop receives, along with the bodies of the Crown Prince and his personal guard/body double, the ultimate insult from Queen Rhusana; so when they discover that the two young men have faked their deaths in order to escape the queen’s plans to reign (which have included multiple attempts on the prince’s life), Fie is ready to cut their throats anyway. Instead, she drives a hard bargain with Prince Jasimir: If the Crows help him reach his supporters and he lives to assume the throne, he will materially protect her people—with guards, with respect for their function in his society, with acknowledgement that they are also his people.
The rest of the book is an account of Fie’s desperate attempts to honor her oath. The other members of her troupe are betrayed and taken hostage, and she must step up as chief, making her responsible for getting Jasimir, the Hawk Tavin, and herself halfway across the country of Sabor, undetected by the Oleander Gentry (a group of vigilantes who target Crows), skin witches, ghasts, and everything else the queen can throw at them. It’s an exciting tale of near misses, tragedies, and miraculous recoveries, but what really struck me was the progression of understanding, as the story goes on and the three become more intimate, about what the oath between the Crown Prince and the Crows really means.
Jasimir is the epitome of white privilege: He has been raised in the highest caste, and believes in the abstract that he has a responsibility to rule his people well, but doesn’t take into account that a portion of his people are left out of his concern or indeed of his attention, and that far from being taken care of, they are persecuted at every turn. As he begins to realize the breadth of the bargain he has struck—that he will compel members of his guard, the Hawks, a higher caste than the Crows, to protect them—he and Fie have a series of conversations that reveal how shallow is his understanding of what it means to be an advocate for all of his people, and how unwilling he is to change.
Fie was sick of bartering for her right to exist. She stood to face him down. “And who in the twelve hells do you think Crows are? Someone else’s people? Someone else’s problem? Because you already made my oath with the rest of Sabor: You protect your people and set our laws, and we pay for your crown. That’s your oath as king. You just don’t want to keep it with Crows.”
It’s such an on-point discussion of what those who are at the top are willing to witness in the mistreatment of those at the bottom, without caring or maybe without even noticing, and what happens when this inequity is brought to their attention. Will they step up and do the right thing? Or will they make excuses—it’s too radical a solution, others won’t go for it, maybe someday, of course we’ll take this under consideration, we can’t do that but maybe we can do this…. It’s a microcosm of every so-called conversation between white men in power and black people subject to their influence.
At the same time, it wasn’t obvious or preachy, it wasn’t made clear that this was the secret agenda for which the book was written—The Merciful Crow is a fantastic saga of an adventure, of good against evil, of hunters and hunted, of choices, chance, and character. The protagonist is the perfect mix of uncertain with stubborn, fueled by anger, pride, and honor. Her two companions exhibit their own personalities uniquely and completely. The bad guys are sufficiently overwhelming and scary to justify the terror in which the trio operate at the thought of being caught by them. And the story, as all really good fantasies are, is complete within itself and yet leaves the door open for a sequel (The Faithless Hawk, which is being released today!). I was blown away by this book (especially knowing that this was a debut author), which gave me similar “feels” to Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. It’s billed and published as Young Adult, but recommend it to everyone you know who loves a good saga.