Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow is an absolute must-read for any fans of great fantasy, fantastic heroines, or stories that make us want to storm the castle.
Honestly, The Merciful Crow is just a must-read for any fans of fiction.
First off — world building geeks, this one’s for us. The Merciful Crow is a truly stunning work of fantasy, one with a carefully planned system of magic and incredibly lush worldbuilding.
The world of Sabor feels unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, but lived-in and organic enough to feel real. It’s so obvious how much thought Margaret Owen put into her system of magic — the birthrights, the lore — just as its obvious how much care she put into creating the environment which surrounds that magic — the hierarchies, the social classes, the conflicts born from the magic system.
Secondly, I love each and every one of the characters — even when they’re frustrating to us.
Fie is a force of nature — angry and fierce and loyal, with a vulnerability that was never painted as a weakness. She’s a tremendous heroine to follow throughout the course of the book, and I’d gladly follow across an entire series of books (ahem, publishers).
Jasimir and Tavin — the on-the-run prince and his hot bodyguard, respectively — are likewise fully fleshed out, complex and complicated characters. They are distinct and thoughtfully drawn, each with a captivating arc that only adds to their appeal and to the story.
Third, Margaret Owen’s writing is absolutely gorgeous.
Not just in terms of plotting, pacing and characterization — though it is that, too — but in terms of how it’s written. How words and sentences come together and slot themselves into a little place in your heart; the way phrases and dialogue leap off the page and make you want to repeat them out loud, shout them across a room, tattoo them on your skin.
But the thing that stands out the most to me about The Merciful Crow — and what has made it one of my favorite debuts I’ve ever read — is just how damn hopeful it is.
The world of The Merciful Crow — as with all worlds, real and imagined — is a place of hierarchies.
It’s incredibly diverse, but one in which all people are rigidly divided into a caste system which is named after various birds. The castes each inherit a birthright — a type of magic — which determines their place in the literal and social hierarchy of the world.
The Phoenixes — if you couldn’t just tell from their name — are at the very top, royalty able to wield fire. There are Peacocks, who can create illusions; Hawks, who can deal out both pain and healing; even Pigeons down towards the bottom, whose birthright is simply luck.
And what about the titular Crows?
Their birthright is to be born without one. They are the very bottom of the caste system, having no inherent magic — but being the only caste who can take on other caste’s magic by using a part of them (generally teeth). Hence, the pejorative often levied against them of “bone thief.
Another reason they rank low on everyone’s list? They are the only ones in the world of Sabor with a natural immunity to the deadly Sinner’s Plague, forcing them to serve as undertakers and mercy-killers — a position that has never been highly sought-after or respected.
In fact, not only are the crows on the lowest rung of the hierarchal ladder, not only are they forced to take care of the oozing dead bodies of plague victims — or slash the throats of those infected with the plague as a necessity to keep the plague from spreading — they are so widely hated by all the other castes that a white-robed group of anonymous riders called the Oleander Gentry set out almost every night to hang and kill them.
The only monsters she’d seen were humans with something to hide behind.
If that sounds similar to a group we here in the states are unfortunately all too familiar with, that’s intentional — though they are not, as Margaret Owen told me, the only group she thought about as she wrote that part of the book.
“If I’m setting up a society and setting up a story around a character who is dramatically underprivileged, I need to be realistic about what that looks like,” she explained to me, saying that doing so “involved listening to people from a lot of different identities — from disability to being Black in America to being an immigrant — and looking at all the different ways that white people have altered their daily experience for the worst.”
It’s that sort of thoughtfulness, openness and willingness to listen to and understand marginalized perspectives that adds to the realism of the worldbuilding in The Merciful Crow.
Yes, this is a world in which people can wield fire and heal wounds, where 16 year old girls can use a bag of teeth to hide her trail from her pursuers, but it also firmly grounded in the experiences and voices of our world.
“The needle that I was trying to thread,” Owen told me, “was to tell a story that accurately reflected this lack of privilege that in a way was realistic but not transgressive or not taking a story that belonged to someone else.”
And reader I have to tell you — she absolutely succeeded.
Fie’s anger was a curious thing, sometimes tempered and unwavering as cut steel, sometimes raw and unstoppable as a cut vein.
It was important to me,” Margaret Owen told me after we had a lengthy discussion on the final season of Game of Thrones, “especially as I’m writing for young adults, that I don’t leave them with this message of: if you’ve had a hard life or a hard time, you’re never going to escape from it and you’re going to die. Fuck that. I’m going to tell them to burn the castle down and make your life ok. Make your life better.”
And Fie, the 16 year old heroine and Crow chief-in-training the novel focuses on, is absolutely the one to burn that castle down and make her life better.
She is one of my favorite fantasy heroines that I have ever come across — spirited and unbroken and just so damn strong despite everything that happened to her.
But unlike what so many other works of fiction tell us about strength, Fie’s strength doesn’t come from being alone, from being hardened, from suffering on her own.
Fie’s strength comes from her community, from her belief that they are worth fighting for, from her absolutely justified anger when they are taken from her. She is a character who knows when she must stand up for something, and when she should walk away from everything.
Owen said that her intent with this book was to “interrogate these systems of power and challenge this idea that certain people are entitled to power because they were born into it,” and there is no better person to interrogate those systems than Fie.
She is angry and unapologetic about it. She is focused.
And she is oh so strong in so many different ways — the loud strength of power and might, and the quiet strength of will and belief and hope.
She could burn it all down and run. But that was the way of dead royals who got what they wanted and didn’t have to give a damn who paid for it.
Lately, I’ve been nearly obsessed with finding and consuming stories which trade in the promise of hope rather than unending trauma, which assure us that the light at the end of the tunnel is indeed the sun breaking through and not headlight of an oncoming train.
It’s been much harder than you think it might be.
Which is why I’m so glad that I read The Merciful Crow, and why I think it’s not only a fantastic story but a necessary one.
Speaking about Fie’s journey, Margaret Owen told me that it was important to her that Fie gets a good ending — one that “doesn’t come from her having to give something up,” a resolution that “doesn’t demand a sacrifice from the people who have been suffering.”
There’s another book coming in the series, so I know there’s still more conflicts to be had for Fie, Tavin and Jas, but it’s a blessing and a relief to know that Fie, especially, who has already suffered so much for so long, won’t be forced to endure a long journey of tragedy and trauma at the hands of an author who simply wants to shock the reader.
Because Margaret Owen is not looking to shock us or to hammer in how tragic this world can be. Instead, what she offers us is a dazzling thoughtful story that asks us to interrogate privilege, investigate power and think about the nature of responsibility.
It’s a story that is sometimes dark, sometimes tragic — just as life can be and often is dark and tragic — but one that tells us that that darkness, that tragedy does not have to be the status quo.
Suffering does not — should not — have to be our status quo.
The Merciful Crow is a story that tells us not only that we can change, but that we are capable of burning down the castle, of overturning the system.
It’s a story which Margaret Owen hopes will encourage us to “ask questions and recognize how we got our own power and privilege in the first place, and how we can use that to help people who don’t have it and advocate for them to have it.”
It’s a story that will help us to understand that anything that “requires you to sacrifice yourself — that puts your own health and safety at risk — is very rarely something worth doing.”
Most of all, it’s a story that Margaret Owen hopes will encourage readers to be able to “look at someone who has done nothing but hurt you and say: ‘I don’t owe you any more of my time or effort or my heart.’ And walk away.”