3.75 Stars

Margaret Owen
Published July 2019

*Review by Alexa*

A future chieftain.

Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.

A fugitive prince.

When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.

A too-cunning bodyguard.

Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?

I don’t think it should come as any surprise to you, Dear Reader, that I am a sucker for high fantasy stories with a unique magical system—especially when they veer toward the spooky and/or creepy—which is why The Merciful Crow, the debut novel of Margaret Owen, has been one of my most anticipated 2019 reads.  A high fantasy book with an intricate magical system that includes pulling magic from the teeth of dead people?!  Oh yeah, I’m all in on that.  I tried everything to get my hands on an arc (advanced reader copy) of Crow, and I’m pretty sure I entered just about every contest the Internet had to offer to win one.  All of my efforts proved futile, and so by the time release day rolled around I was practically stalking my poor mail carrier for my copy.  I poured a fresh cup of coffee, turned on a movie for the minions, and started reading…and then about 30 minutes later I put it down to start some laundry…and then I didn’t pick it back up for two days.  In total, it took me nearly ten days to get through Crow, which is about eight more days than I had anticipated.  It’s not that the story isn’t good or interesting, there just wasn’t that special something that made me want to shun my responsibilities or stay up late.  Crow isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, but it isn’t a great book either, and it left me with some mixed feelings.  Let’s discuss, shall we?

There was a lot I enjoyed about Crow, but nothing more so than the magical system.  This book has one of the coolest and most visceral magical systems I’ve come across, specifically the way the Crows practice and use their magic.  There is something about using the teeth of the dead that reminds me so much of folk magic, and I loved every tidbit of information that Owen gave me.  In fact, I could have used way more information about it, but perhaps we will get more in the sequel.  The birthright magic of the other castes was interesting as well, but it’s really nothing new in the fantasy world.  If you ask me (and if you’re reading this, well then you kind of are), the Crow magic is absolutely the most unique and coolest part of this story.

On the nights you burn sinners, sleep with your sandals on.

I also love how much LGBTQIA+ representation there is and that it is actually major character representation.  The rep reminds me of Once and Future in that the characters are just the way they are and it is never harped on or introduced so much as something you learn along the way.  The gender and/or sexuality of the characters is just a part of them, rather than something to be used as a plot point. The female sexual empowerment is pretty great as well.  Fie, the MC, understands what she wants, and talks about sex both as a need and a want. It was nice to see a female in YA see sex as part of life and not something to spend pages fretting over (she’s got enough to worry about).  As with the characters sexuality, sex is just another part of life and not used as a plot point.  It was, quite honestly, rather refreshing.  Also, there is talk of mensuration and the need to deal with it, and I just really appreciate that.  It’s one of my pet peeves that periods and all of the issues that come with them are so rarely discussed in books.  Ladies have periods, dammit, and if we are going to have good representation of women in books, then we need to talk about periods as a normal part of life.

This was the dance. This was the game. The one she wasn’t meant to win.

There was also a lot I didn’t love about this book, but I didn’t hate either.  I enjoyed what little there was of the world building…and it was very little.  This book is supposed to be high fantasy, but the lack of world building didn’t make it feel that way.  This is a world with a complex caste-based system, and the information we got was few and far between and rather sporadically placed. Perhaps Owen plans on addressing the rest of the world building in the second book?  If so, I worry that the second book will be far too exposition heavy to make up for the anemia of this one.  Ok, and maybe this is just a weird quirk that I have, but it drives me crazy when a book never really addresses what a character is wearing. It sounds silly, but the clothes a character wears conveys so much contextual information to the reader, and, for me at least, it makes it difficult to picture a book in my mind when that information is left out (and it almost always was).

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The characters are another aspect that gave me all the ambivalent feelings.  I didn’t dislike any of them, even Jasimir who was so purposefully obnoxious, but I didn’t fall in love with any of them either.  Fie was fine as a lead, Tavin was fine as the brooding mystery, and the various Crows were fine as the supporting cast.  Their actions all made sense, and everyone had clear motivations…but none of them stole my heart.  The villains were equally as ‘meh’ for me.  Tatterhelm, the Oleanders, the Queen…they all just felt like stand-ins for the actual big bad of the story: systemic and violent racism and classism.  Now, don’t get me wrong, systemic racism is terrifying, and the violence portrayed in the book is shocking (although incredibly realistic), but that’s why the bad guys felt so lame.  If you are going to have your villains be representations of something so horrible as a societal injustice, then your personification of that better be damn scary, and these characters just weren’t enough.

Look after your own. Crows had one rule. And she had to be a Crow chief.

This leads me to an aspect of the book that made me uneasy.  This book is so very obviously an allegory for systemic racial and classist oppression and injustice.  I mean, the Oleanders are so blatantly stand-ins for the KKK that they even wear all white and cover their faces.  Queen Rusahna is every dictator and president that has ever used prejudice to his or her advantage (*cough* Trump *cough*).  Now, I love when fantasy and sci-fi stories act as allegories for real life issues; in fact, it’s one of the reasons I love the genre…but it makes me slightly uncomfortable when a white woman uses her story for a racial allegory. She’s essentially speaking to an issue that she herself has never experienced due to her racial privilege. I realize that being a fantasy author is by very definition writing about situations that you have never experienced, but when it’s a white lady writing about people of color being tortured and murdered by other people who ride around on horseback in the night and wear white robes and hoods…it just feels uncomfortable.  This is an issue I honestly don’t feel qualified to address, especially coming from my own place of privilege, but I did want to at least mention it and let you, Dear Reader, to make of it what you will.

Overall, I liked the book well enough, but I certainly didn’t love it.  Too much of the story felt undercooked and unsatisfying, and just much too ambiguous.  Crow was much too easy to put down, especially during the rather tedious and boring middle section, and I never felt really grabbed to pick it back up. This is a decent debut, and I believe a lot of the issues with the storytelling will get worked out in later books, but it certainly wasn’t the must read I was banking on.


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