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The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
4.25
Book Name: The Angel of the Crows
Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher(s): Tor Books (US) Solaris (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy / Urban Fantasy
Release Date: June 23, 2020 (US) September 17, 2020 (UK)

It was the name that first attracted me to this book. An angel associated with a pagan symbol of death and mysticism; the possibilities set my mind racing. Then, I learned that Addison was the same author who wrote the highly inventive, characterful, and absorbing fantasy novel, The Goblin Emperor. I was pretty much sold. And talk of an alternate Victorian London, haunted by shapeshifters, vampires, and angels, cemented my interest.

It was only when I actually started reading the book that I realised a very important fact which I’d managed to overlook before. The Angel of the Crows is a retelling of the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock is replaced by an angel called Crow; Watson is called Doyle. Addison herself, in the afterword, says the novel is Sherlock fanfiction, specifically wing-fiction, which was a new term to me. It means fanfiction where you give a character wings.

Doyle returns home from war, wounded in battle with a Fallen angel. A lack of money forces him to room with an eccentric but not-Fallen angel, who has no real understanding of human social cues and is very interested in solving murders. Crow is brilliant, alien, obsessive and, in many ways, shockingly innocent. Together, these two will be drawn into a number of strange adventures in and around London—solving mysteries and fighting crime (sometimes literally). Both of them have spiritual wounds and dark secrets, which are all gradually explored during their cases.

The other main plotline is the hunt for Jack the Ripper, a slice of history served up alongside all of the fantasy and repurposed literature.

Retellings of the stories of Sherlock Holmes are a genre to themselves at this point. From books and comics to TV and films; Holmes and Watson are characters with ten thousand shadows. Let’s leave aside the legions of eccentric detectives, from Dirk Gently to Dr Henry Morgan to Poirot, with something of Holmes in their DNA. Holmes himself has been reinvented as a warlock, an immortal doctor, a sorceress called Shahrazad, an FBI agent, a drug addict, a robot, an international man of mystery, a mouse, a mantis, and a parrot. He has battled vampires, aliens, the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos, ghosts, dinosaurs, and Mr Hyde. So, what does Addison bring to this already groaning table?

First off, she has a beautiful turn of phrase: “…poisons festering and erupting in my body like malignant flowers.” And she can really cut to the heart of a character with just one or two lines. For example: “…cold politeness that was one step removed from how dare you.” and “radiating wounded dignity like a wet cat.

Also, the novel has some good touches of diversity, exploring the sins of the British Empire, the treatment of minorities and the trauma of being forced into traditional gender roles.

Addison crafts a rich and (relatively) believable supernatural world for her protagonists. This isn’t pulp—it’s calmer, more genteel, though not without peril or horror. She builds details over time, revealing more and more aspects of this society that lives side-by-side with the supernatural. There are witches, curses, ghosts and certified clairvoyants, mechanical hunting dogs, and traditionalist werewolves. There are civilised vampires, who don’t kill people, and desperate hemophages, who do. There are laws, many of them unjust, which govern the lives of these creatures. Addison has clearly put a lot of work into imagining how these different beings would fit into the often-unforgiving society of Victorian Britain, and how their peculiarities could be made to fit the shape of classic Holmes and Watson stories. It feels like a living, breathing world that never grows stale or boring; there’s always something new to learn!

Angels are another key feature, of course. Interestingly, they’ve been cut off from most of their religious associations. They’re more like genius loci—spirits of a particular structure or place. A lot more weird angel lore is revealed throughout the story, but I won’t spoil that here.

Does all of this amount to a good Holmes adaptation? The cases are certainly clever but then so were the originals. I’m not familiar enough with the Holmes canon to spot all the references or understand how much of the original text Addison has changed. But the supernatural elements reshape and redefine the plots enough that even a Holmes expert should find the material quite fresh. And just because you know Holmes, doesn’t mean this book can’t surprise you. Several characters have had substantial personality changes to go along with their supernatural trappings. And one twist caught me completely off guard!

Generally, I believed in Doyle’s narration and enjoyed seeing this reimagined London through his eyes. I soon became fond of him, and of his mysterious angelic partner. The melding of different cases into a single story felt natural as well, all part of the unfolding narrative of a strange but beautiful friendship.

I did spot a couple of brazenly anachronistic Americanisms slipping into the text here and there, like daggers into a heart. Mad instead of angry, smart instead of clever. Such things would simply not be said by 19th Century Brits. This completely shattered my immersion of course and I only recovered after several cups of tea and a good few minutes spent sitting down and saying, ‘Well really!’, to myself.

It’s clear Addison is less interested in the novel’s plot than she is in the relationship between the two lead characters. The Jack the Ripper plotline is tied up quite abruptly, without any particularly exciting revelations. It’s simply a vehicle to carry Doyle to the end of a character arc. Letting them find ways to support each other and to accept their own natures is more important to her than any single case, no matter how notorious. So, come for the crime but stay for the friendship.

In conclusion: Anachronisms aside, this novel is far more than just ‘Sherlock Holmes with wings’, it’s a charming and tender character study and a masterclass in worldbuilding. If you like carefully constructed and thoughtful urban fantasy, this is the book for you. If you like Holmes’ stories and want a fresh perspective, without anything so gauche as battle-dinosaurs, this is the book for you. If you enjoy complex, wounded characters and superb writing, this is the book for you.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in return for a fair review.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Amy Keeley says:

    This sounds perfect. I love the friendship between Holmes and Watson, so reading about Doyle and Crow should be a treat! Thank you!

  2. Avatar Richard Marpole says:

    I must admit that I was wrong to say that a Victorian Brit would never say ‘mad’ to mean ‘angry’.
    I’ve since learned that the use of mad in this way in English dates back several centuries at least. Samuel Pepys, writing in the 17th Century talked about a cruel act ‘making him mad to see it’ and a Duke being ‘mad with’ a group of people who had annoyed him. Although apparently critics have been complaining about this use of mad and calling it an Americanism since the 18th Century, if not before. At least I’ve joined a longstanding tradition!
    So, my apologies to Katherine Addison. It is possible for a Victorian Brit to have said something like this, or at least something similar.
    (Not that I imagine she was losing any sleep over the comment, if she’s even aware of it.)

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