The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen

A Crow, a bone witch, sixteen and a girl, Fie takes on the task of saving a kingdom, by helping its crown prince and demanding equality for her people in return.

The caste you are born in determines your fate.  Phoenix, for royals; Peacocks, Swans, and Doves for the aristocrats; Hawks, Cranes, Owls, and Vultures for the protectors or hunters; Gulls, Pigeons, and Sparrows for the commoners.  And then there are the Crows.

In this hierarchy system within the castes, Crows are seen as the outcasts, the unwanted of Sabor, exiled to a life lived on the road.  Living in constant fear of being killed by any caste be it commoner or aristocrat who band together, forming a notorious hate group called The Oleander Gentry.  “Every Crow carried scars from the Gentry.  They were the reason Crows didn’t stop near many a village after sundown.  That was when the Gentry would ride, bearing white oleanders on their breasts, faces hidden in pale paints and undyed cloth so they couldn’t be traced to kin or caste.” (28 Owen)

Owen takes a very staunch stance on discrimination within her novel.  Her vivid descriptions of this radical group, the Oleander Gentry, harkens to the Ku Klux Klan, who are also known for their extremist views and single-minded superiority.  So similar the Oleander’s are to the Klan in specifically targeting one ethnic group—by physically assaulting or murdering members of this group— while also parading in costume with masks to conceal their identity.  “They were rich and poor, nameless and infamous, many and merciless.  Their hunts were only called murder when they were caught.  And since they only hunted Crows, the regional governors were in no great hurry to catch them.” (28 Owen)

While Owen dips her pen in the past she recreates the all too real and horrifying events into she pens into her own story.  She demands our attention on recurring issues of discrimination by weaving parallels of injustice. This unrelenting hatred towards a single group makes for a jarring read. “Most of Sabor believed Crows to be dead sinners reborn, sentenced to repent through a hard life of containing the plague. Oleanders believe the part they liked, that the Covenant meant to punish Crows for their misdeeds and claimed the Crows spread the plague themselves.  Then they took it upon themselves to dole out that punishment.  The Covenant was one more mask for them, and Fie kenned too well the monsters that rode beneath it.” (28, Owen) 

The Oleanders use propaganda to spread fear and bigotry amongst the castes so that they can justify hunting and exterminate the Crows.  To single-handedly become judge and executioner without any consequences from any ruling officials because Crows are deemed—in their views—as other and different, and therefore need no protection.

Even though the Oleanders threaten the Crows existence, they still have their purpose.  Crows are a peripatetic tribe, wandering the map of Sabor, waiting for signs of the Sinner’s Plague to burn in the sky, calling them to haul away the dead or to show mercy to the dying.  Crows are only useful and wanted when the Sinner’s Plague crops up in a village, city, or palace.  Because Crows are the only peoples who are immune to the Sinners Plague, they are the caste responsible for extracting victims of the disease. 

As the heir to her Pa’s chiefdom, Fie trains to one day take his place, but her anger towards the constant and often brutal treatment of her people is palpable.  “Fie’s anger was a curious thing, sometimes tempered and unwavering as cut steel, sometimes raw and unstoppable as a cut vein.  Now an old sharp kind of rage climbed up her spine, forged of every blade pointed at her for a jest.” (16, Owen)

But all too soon Fie must take up her father’s blade and teeth as chief when the signal of Sinner’s Plague alights the Royal Palace of Sabor.  Two corpses needing to be hauled away for burning, one, the Crown Phoenix,  Prince Jasimir, and his Hawk bodyguard and double, Tavin sza Markahn.  Yet, the dead don’t stay dead long and Fie upon meeting the two not-so-dead royals (the scene is incredibly clever, hilarious, and penned perfectly) that she immediately dislikes them and hopes to be rid of them. 

Unfortunately, fate has bound Fie to her oath made to protect the Crown Prince. Fie is forced to lead the Jasimir and his bodyguard across the map of Sabor on an oath she is obligated to fulfill, while both royals pose as members of her caste to keep their identities safe.  As the trio race to the Jas’s only ally, Fie is torn between her oath to the Prince and the one rule all Crows must follow: “look after your own.”  And over the course of the novel the royals begin to understand and experience firsthand the oppressive abuse and violence the Crows suffer wherever they go.  Their views begin to shift and so too do their feelings towards Fie.

Keeping the Prince alive becomes Fie’s main objective as they draw closer to their destination.  Inch by inch, through blood, sweat, and tears she gives and gives, pouring every ounce of her witchery and gut-instincts into keeping the Prince alive and safe.  She desperately tries to outmaneuver and stay ahead of the malevolent Swan Queen, Rhusana, and her arsenal of deadly forces: implacable legion of skinwitch trackers, zombie-like ghasts, along with the terrifying Oleander Gentry.

Owen’s debut novel is decisive, thought provoking, and captivating.  With a plot that has you racing from start to finish and world-building that has all the needed elements for a satisfying read.  She exposes the cruelty of intolerance and hate without shying away from the truth of the effects of long-term prejudices.  Her collection of characters are a diverse troupe who all have their own unique attributes, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and voice.  The dynamic dialogue between her characters, particularly between a certain Hawk bodyguard and chief-in-training, is as insightful as it is enticing.  Owen candidly writes about family bonds showing the constant familial struggle between duty over self wants and needs.  There are such poignantly intimate moments within the novel, depicting realistic, complex, yet incredibly relatable relationships all of which are thoughtfully crafted and perfectly executed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

The story continues in the sequel titled The Faithless Hawk.

That is a rather foreboding title…

But I’m looking forward to reading it!

Happy Reading  ̴  Cece

RATING: ink blotink blotink blotink blot – Exceptionally Inked

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: July, 2019

Pages: 375

ISBN-10:  1524713961

ISBN-13:  9781250191922

Audience: Young Adult; ages 14 and up

Jacket Illustration and design: Rich Deas

Castle Image from Shutterstock.com

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