*Spoiler Warning — This post contains some light spoilers for The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Own.*
I haven’t felt compelled to write a book review in quite some time. In fact, I’m more likely to write reviews when I hate a book, usually writing out something scathing on Amazon or Goodreads which I then erase once my rage has passed. This time though, I’m writing good review, and I don’t plan to erase it.
The Merciful Crow, by Margaret Own, is a Young-Adult fantasy novel, part coming of age tale, part romance, part adventure, and part social commentary, about a young chief-to-be, Fie, who makes an oath with the heir to the throne in order to secure protection for her people, the Crows, who are the lowest caste of twelve castes in the world. The Crows are the undertakers of the realm, charged with disposing of the world’s plague-dead, and the prince Jasimir and his guard and body double, Tavin, have just faked their own deaths to escape the capital. They hope for the Crows help in disguising them and falling in with one of their nomadic bands, allowing the pair to seek out allies to help prevent the queen from using a group of religious radicals (who happen to want to see the Crows exterminated) to usurp the throne.
The Merciful Crow’s world-building is intricate and unique. With twelve castes all named for different birds, from the highest ranking Phoenixes (the royal caste), to the lower caste Sparrows, to the untouchable Crows, each caste has its own “birthright,” or magical gift that those born as “witches” in each caste are able to use. The Crows’ birthright gives Crow witches the ability to call magic from bones (usually in the form of teeth, which are often paid to the Crows as payment for their mortuary services), utilizing the birthrights of the other castes — fire for Phoenixes, disguise for Peacocks, invisibility for Sparrows — all in all twelve different abilities. The Crows are also the only caste, besides the Phoenixes, who are immune to the deadly Sinner’s Plague. It is their proximity to the plague and death, moreso than their magic, which makes Crows reviled throughout the kingdom.
And this is what prompted me to write this review. Many novels have attempted to incorporate social justice themes into fantasy worlds, with varying degrees of success, but rarely do they incorporate do it as well as The Merciful Crow. Owen makes certain that the reader understands that prejudice is more than just slurs and violence, and has her privileged characters, Prince Jasimir and his guard Tavin examine and come to terms with the reality of their privilege over the course of their journey. There are many little moments — in one particularly poignant scene, Tavin speaks with Fie about a game that is played in the palace. In the game, there are pieces which represent each caste. The pieces which represent the Crows, he says, are worthless, and if you want to win, you need to get rid of them. Fie isn’t surprised, she’s been dealing with this all of her life, but Tavin begins to realize all of the ways in which hatred for the Crows has been entrenched into their society. As Jasimir and Tavin walk the road along with the Crows they see firsthand how brutally they are treated. When the group encounters trouble, Jasimir repeatedly suggests going to the Hawks, the realm’s protectors, and cannot understand why the Crows scoff at this idea. The Crows know that the Hawks are just as likely to engage in violence against the Crows as the rest of the castes, and when Jasimir indignantly proclaims Not All Hawks (!) Fie and Tavin point out to him that while, true, perhaps not all Hawks are bad, all it takes is one.
There are other small touches that set The Merciful Crow apart from other books. The world seems broadly tolerant of various sexualities — Prince Jasimir is gay, Tavin has had liasons with both men and women, and polyamory seems common, with some of the royals having both husbands and wives at the same time. The Crows themselves marry sometimes, and sometimes they don’t. There is a character who is referred to by the pronoun “they,” presumably because the character is genderqueer or genderfluid, but no explanation is ever given, because none is needed. The author slips these details in as simply a given in this world, no fanfare, no big reveals. In The Merciful Crow, these characters are normal people, living their lives, no explanation required.
Being a young adult fantasy, of course The Merciful Crow has a romantic subplot which could broadly be categorized as enemies to grudging allies to friends to lovers. The main romance is a straight love story, between Tavin and Fie, a love which crosses caste boundaries, Tavin being a Hawk, and Fie a Crow. Initially suspicious of Tavin’s motives, Fie moves past her initial distrust of the Hawk caste when she realizes that Tavin’s care for her is sincere, and that his respect for her people is not an act. The relationship between the two is satisfying — we aren’t tortured with endless reasons why the two shouldn’t be together, or manufactured misunderstandings, nor do they treat each other horribly in order to deny their feelings. The two are honest and mature with each other, and the resulting romance is something the reader can really feel good about — a healthy relationship the likes of which is not seen very often in YA fantasy.
The Merciful Crow is the kind of book that, as an English teacher, I want my students to read. While the world is entirely original, not really based on any true life settings or cultures, it still manages to examine ideas about prejudice and privilege that are very pertinent to real life. The Merciful Crow never claims that the problems of its world will be solved easily. At the end of the first installment of this planned trilogy, Fie realizes that the oath that she’s sacrificed so much for will not be as easy for the Prince to uphold as either of them had thought. Even though Fie has won over Jasimir, who has come to see her as a friend and the Crows as his subjects, and equal to the other castes, Jasimir realizes that fighting against entrenched prejudice isn’t as easy as issuing a decree. Fie and her band of Crows have no choice but to put their faith in the Crown and keep fighting for a better world, even if that world might not be achieved in their own time, even if the prejudice against the Crows might never entirely disappear. This isn’t some savior tale where prejudice ends, the good guys prevail, and everything ends up happily the end — this world and the people in it, like our real one, are complex and often disappointing. For those of us who want to see change, sometimes change comes too slowly if it comes at all, and sometimes we have to settle for less than ideal solutions to the problems plague society, and learning that too, is part of growing up. Most of all, The Merciful Crow reminds us though that while we may have farther to go than we thought, and sometimes making sacrifices hurts, fighting for justice will always be the right choice.