The Merciful Crow


Margaret Owen


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

August 8, 2021

was disappointed by The Merciful Crow. I saw it on the library bookshelf of new paperback releases, and since this was my first visit to the library since the pandemic hit, I was eagerly scooping up more books than I could possibly read. What attracted to me to The Merciful Crow was all the blurbs extolling the world building. I gravitate toward novels with world building - it means that the author has dreamed a unique and interesting alternate world, complete with magic and fauna and civilizations (and maps! Good fantasy novels often have a map!) that display the author's creativity and imagination.

Perhaps the world of Sabor that Owen has created is the strongest aspect of this novel, but it is a flawed world. In Sabor, everyone is divided into different castes. Each caste is named after a bird (why birds? I am not sure if there are any actual birds mentioned in this novel.) - there are Swans, Hawks, Pigeons - eleven castes in all. The royalty are of the Phoenix caste, the lowliest caste are the Crows. But the Crows perform a vital function for everyone. When the plague strikes, only the Crows are immune - they can safely take the body away and burn it. If the body is not burned, the contagion will spread and the entire village will perish.

Despite this vital function, everyone in Sabor loathes the Crows. When the Crows come a village, they are supposed to be paid a fee called viatik, (viatik, according to the internet, is an old Scottish word for a sum of money used for traveling), but the villagers often refuse to pay. Why don't the Crows just refuse to go to those villages? Leave a Crow sign outside the village gate warning all the other Crow clans about the village's belligerence, and next time there is a plague victim there, the entire village would be destroyed. Harsh? Yes, but it would immediately stop all this nonsense about villages not paying.

Even more inexplicible is a secret society called the Oleanders. These are people who ride out at night and attack the Crows, out of sheer malice. What motivates this hatred? Never explained. It certainly isn't rational - if all the Crows are dead, then plague will sweep the land, including the members of the Oleander society, and everyone will die a horrible death. Plague is common occurrence in Sabor; the novel takes place in a bit more than a week of time, yet in that brief time there are multiple villages that sent up smoke signals calling the Crows to help them. So it's not as if the villagers could have forgotten how much they rely on the services of the Crows.

Fie is a young Crow training to be a Crow chieftain. Her clan has been called to the royal palace. Incredibly, the royal prince, Jasimir, and his bodyguard, Tavin, have perished from the plague. Fie's clan must wrap the bodies and carry them away to a cleansing pyre. But - surprise! - Prince Jasimir and Tavin are not really dead, nor do they have the plague. They faked their fate in order to escape the clutches of the evil Queen Rhusana. Now Jasimir and Tavin need the help of the Crow clan to escort them to allies that will stop the Queen's coup attempt. What is puzzling is that Queen Rhusana sends her Vulture trackers out after the Prince. But why? She thinks that he is dead of the plague. It didn't make sense to me that Fie and her clan must elude pursuit.

The Crows have a magical ability - they can harness the powers of the dead members of the other clans by extracting their teeth. For example - does a Crow want the power to wield fire like a Phoenix? Then the Crow holds a Phoenix tooth (harvested from a dead body) in their hand, and for as long as the tooth retains power, then the Crow can control fire. I wondered why only teeth were used. Why didn't the Crows use the finger bones or knuckle bones, etc, and give themselves even more reserves of power?

Led by the evil expert tracker Tatterhelm, Fie, Tavin and Jasimir are chased across Sabor. (For some reason, despite that fact that they are on foot, and Tatterhelm and his allies are mounted, they always seem to be able to out run their pursuers.) When Tatterhelm or his minions get close, Fie calls up a Phoenix tooth and creates a wall of flame - but why doesn't she direct this flame to simply incinerate her enemies? Fie has the ability to roast the bad guys, I saw no explanation why she didn't do so.

In one bizarre scene, Fie is responding to a plague call by a village. A Sparrow taunts the Crows. But Tavin is of the Hawk clan, which makes him a war witch. He uses magic power to boil away the flesh of the evil Sparrow, until the Sparrow is reduced to a smoking ruin. Why doesn't Tavin use this magic ability when Fie and company are in real danger? For example, why not boil away Tatterhelm's skin when he attacks them?

How is it that all the Hawks in the kingdom are in on Queen Rhusana's plot? She hasn't even murdered King Surimir yet, but all the Hawks that Fie encounters are loyal to the Queen? Why don't any of these traitorous Hawks uses their war-witch powers to boil Fie's skin - after all, she is just a lowly Crow, no point in sparing her.

I found that The Merciful Crow was devoid of surprises. I thought that the plot contained too many holes. I didn't really like any of the characters. Although there is a sequel, The Faithless Hawk, I am not going to read it.