4/5 stars on Goodreads
|The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison|
Sarah Monette is a fantasy author who blew my mind with Mélusine and the Doctrine of Labyrinths series that followed fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve kept expecting new books from her, but it was years later until she returned to my radar, now writing as Katherine Addison. The Goblin Emperor is waiting on my to-be-read pile, but the sample chapters were truly interesting. When I noticed The Angel of Crows on NetGalley, I instantly made a request for it, and to my absolute delight, I was given an early copy.
The book description promised an alternate Victorian London where angels rule and everyone lives in a constant fear of one of them falling, which would be like “a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds”. Seldom has a book description been so off. What I got was a Sherlock Holmes retelling. I don’t like retellings and Sherlock Holmes retellings are the most tired of them all. If I’d known it was one, I probably would’ve skipped this, no matter how much I like the author.
This is basically a collection of Holmes’ most famous cases bound together with a superficial plot about Jack the Ripper—a case Holmes famously never tackled. There were some minor changes, but none of them made the stories truly fresh. The newness, therefore, rests solely on the world-building.
It’s an alternate Victorian London with everything. There are both steampunk elements, like airships and automatons, and all manner of supernatural creatures from vampires and werewolves to ghosts and hellhounds. And angels. There are three kinds of angels: those bound to a building and thus worthy of a name, the Nameless who wander about without a mind and purpose of their own, and the Fallen who are vicious creatures who kill and inflict supernatural diseases. We actually never meet the latter.
Holmes is an angel called Crow. He is different from other angels because he is not bound to a building, but isn’t a Nameless or a Fallen either—a fact that the author didn’t fully explain until about midway to the book, which left me constantly baffled with people’s reactions to him. He likes to solve crimes, and he is very good at deductive reasoning. Unlike Holmes, he doesn’t have any vices—he doesn’t even eat—or irritating habits, and he is actually very endearing in his constant awe of humanity.
Dr Watson is Dr Doyle who has survived an attack by a Fallen in Afghanistan and is suffering from the consequences, which will lead to a metamorphosis. Since the actual flavour of the change is kept as a secret for a while, I’ll discuss it in the spoiler section at the end of the post. It plays some role in solving the cases; perhaps the only worthwhile alteration the author has made to the stories. The good doctor has another secret too, even more tightly guarded. Considering the importance given to it, I would’ve wished it actually had some sort of impact—it definitely would’ve opened the story to a whole new level—but it was glossed over and life went on like it didn’t even exist. More about that in the spoiler section.
Considering the interesting world the author has created, it seems criminal that she’s wasted it on Sherlock Holmes. The angels had a fascinating society that could’ve formed a basis to a completely unique plot, and Crow had such an interesting backstory that he could’ve carried a book on that alone. The alterations don’t even really influence the original stories. It wasn’t until midway to the book that they started to have any effect on the cases, and the suspects remained ordinary humans in pretty much all of them.
This being said, I found the book interesting enough to keep reading. I even gave it four stars. The author has recreated the atmosphere of Conan-Doyle’s originals well, the narrative style works and never wavers, and I liked both Crow and Dr Doyle. If there’s ever a follow-up, I hope the author goes to town with the world and gives the two a proper plot and a unique story.
And now to the spoilers.
You have been warned.
The first spoiler concerns what Dr Doyle is changing into. A hellhound. It’s a somewhat helpful change, as it gives Doyle an ability to smell both natural and supernatural traces. It also allows the author to play with the story of the Hound of Baskerville and add fresh scenes about them trying to find a cure for it with Crow. In the end, it allows the doctor to find Jack the Ripper too. However, it reveals the secret to the police who rush in to arrest Doyle, as unregistered creatures are illegal—though the author fails to explain why this is.
Being a hellhound is surprisingly easy for Doyle. There’s some pain and some shame, but at no point in the narrative does the doctor mourn or berate the change. The author is too tied with the original Holmes stories to give room to such ruminations. And just when the story got interesting, a deus ex machina allows the doctor to remain free.
The other secret is bigger and an even greater wasted opportunity for the author. At the mid-point of the book, out of the blue—there are literally no hints whatsoever—it turns out, that Dr Doyle is in fact a woman. I’d say my mind was blown, and it kind of was, but it would’ve made a greater impact if it had been at least hinted at.
And it would’ve mattered more, if this new reality had been incorporated into the story somehow. But life goes on like before. We don’t learn why Dr Doyle pretends to be a man. Is it for purely practical reasons, as it’s the only way she can practice medicine? Or does she in fact identify as a man? She seems to be attracted to women, but then nothing comes of that. And how does it work? She’s spent decades as a military doctor on campaigns and no one even guessed until she ended up in hospital after being attacked by the Fallen angel. Does she have a naturally manly body? A low voice? And what about the periods? How does she deal with them? So many questions and not a single answer given. So I don’t understand why the author felt necessary to make such a change. Being a hellhound was bad enough for the poor doctor. Why did he need to be inflicted with being a woman too?