Shortly before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I discovered one of those books you want to share from the rooftops. It captured me, engaged me, and made me really think about how we engage with other people. I was ready to review it – when you find those books you can’t put down, of course you want to share them – except when they’re about a plague as a global pandemic is starting to hit your community. Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to get under control in Montgomery County, I feel like I can share this book a little easier.
Merciful Crow and its sequel, Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, are the type of book that sticks with you and you can’t let it go. The phrase “book hangover” comes to mind, except this hangover has lasted over a year. Yeah, it was that good!
Before I start, there are some content warnings for this series: there is a plague, mentions of physical and sexual assault, some gore, and a lot of death.
Fie is a Crow in her world, the lowest in a caste system where each group is named after different birds, with the royal family being the Phoenixes. Certain people in each caste have additional magic – and each of them is a reincarnated dead god. Death and life are interwoven in the stories, where the Crows “give mercy” to those dying from the plague and dispose of their bodies. It is this association that makes Crows the lowest of the low, only allowed to carry broken swords, and abused by the rest of their community. Crow magic is done through the discarded teeth of the people within the castes. When Fie’s Crow family is called to the palace to give mercy to the prince and his bodyguard, everything changes. First, she collects the Phoenix teeth, which had been withheld from the Crows for centuries. Then she discovers that the prince and his bodyguard are in fact alive, and are fleeing from the palace to save the young prince’s life. Fie must help him travel to his aunt, a mammoth rider and Hawk warrior, to return to the palace and overthrow his stepmother. While Fie would normally do nothing of the sort, there are two things that help her decide to help – her family is in danger, and the prince promises to protect the Crows.
What follows is not just a story about a prince trying to reclaim a throne, but a story about mercy, about how a harmful system can’t be fixed with decrees but from within, and how the community is responsible for changing that system, not just the government. It also talks about the terrible cost of intergenerational trauma on a group of people.
For anyone looking for a good fantasy read, this may be what you are looking for. I’m currently playing through Dragon Age: Origins, and have noticed some plot similarities, so if you’re a fantasy role playing game fan, definitely try it. It’s also a great book for fans of Leigh Bardugo, Susan Dennard, and Tamora Pierce.