Published by MacMillan Publishers / Henry Holt and Company Imprint
Detailed descriptions of blood and violence, gore, plague, animal injury/endangerment, genre-typical descriptions of sex and intimacy, mention of rape, mention of parental abuse.
– Fierce, determined, emotionally complex heroine
– Fierce, thoughtful, emotionally complex love interest
– Actually good banter for once (Do you know how much mediocre-to-bad banter YA holds?)
– Superb characterization and character growth
– Journey across Sabor keeps you on the edge of your seat
– Cool magic system tied to caste
– Excellent use of repeating motifs
– Superb writing style
– Some gaps in worldbuilding elements
Reader be warned: there was not one single actual bird. But—it was still one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The Merciful Crow follows Fie as she doggedly travels from one side of Sabor to the other with the Prince and his body-double in tow, the Queen’s trackers hunting them all the while. The lives of her family and the future of her caste is on the line, and she’s sworn an oath to fulfill no matter what.
I roll my eyes when someone says a book “has everything” because, well, “has everything” is no guarantee all—or any—of those elements are good. But The Merciful Crow genuinely does cover so many things, and each of them is executed incredibly well. There are fast-paced moments that steal your breath away, stealthy reveals, peaceful moments, tons of inner conflict, heartbreak and heartache, a carefully constructed romance and gleeful triumph—not necessarily longlived. Owen has proven herself a talented and thoughtful storyteller with this debut, carefully balancing hard and soft moments and Fies outer goals with her inner conflict. She introducing themes and elements early on, reinforces them in the right moments and brings them home to roost with glorious success.
The Merciful Crow‘s plot is everything a book should be: both entertaining and meaningful.
Although we didn’t glimpse much of the setting at large, outside of the caste and magic systems, what is featured is thoughtful and makes sense. Fie spends much of her time on the road or forging ahead through the wilderness, so we learn the most about Crows—their gods, their culture. There’s a lot of thought into how the Crows live their lives. They leave stashes for other bands of Crows in their hidden shrines, where elderly Crows retire to when they can no longer walk the roads and where mothers birth and raise their babies. Owen’s descriptions of the places Fie passes through on her journey range from creative and solid to downright vivid. I only have the smallest bone to pick with some of the worldbuilding: The Sinners Plague. There are frustrating gaps in something that’s so central to Fie’s journey. How much of it is magical and how much of it is physical? What makes someone a Sinner? Are the Sinner’s marks disease-related or a genuine branding from the Gods?
Fie is our main character, and as such goes through the most internal conflict and has the most complete character arc of herself, Tavin and Jas.
All three are sharply characterized and feel like realistic depictions. Fie’s determination to see the oath through, her slow-simmering rage toward how Sabor treats the Crow caste, her painful internal conflict as she does things no Crow should do—leave the roads the Crows walk, learn to read, develop feelings for someone outside her caste—all forge a clear-cut image of who she is and what she does. She is both a character distinct to her story and an easy one to empathize with.
Something I deeply appreciated was how the higher caste boys, Tavin and Jas, were genuinely characterized as people struggling to let go of their singular worldviews. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of royal and higher born characters who only need a week in the rough and one meaningful incident and then, look! They’re just like regular people now! Tavin and Jas are constantly wondering why the Crows tolerate abuse from the other castes, why they don’t go to Hawks for help, why they city gatekeepers charge illegal “tolls” for entering the city. It takes a long, long time before both boys start to get it.
I also—for once—genuinely enjoyed the romance between Fie and Tavin. There’s a lot of raw back-and-forth between them, a lot of hard truths for Tavin to learn, a lot of trust they must slowly forge between them. I see a lot of authors try to write this sort of dynamic, where the characters come from very different viewpoints and generate lots of banter between them, but the male character often comes across as a condescending ass. Tavin does not.
The Merciful Crow is told in third person past tense, with Fie as the only POV character.
Margaret Owen’s writing style is GORGEOUS. Everything from word choice to changing her sentence structure to build tension or pick up the pace—this may be a debut book, but it clearly shows a lot of time and thought went into both her abilities and the book. She’s presented Fie’s raw, homespun “voice” beautifully.
Themes and Representation
The Merciful Crow deals A LOT with Fie’s conflict as a marginalized character, primarily tempering her rage to strike out against the castes who holler insults, deny Crows their proper payment and even hunt down Crows for sport. She longs to fight back, but knows the world is just looking for an excuse to strike Crows down. It’s a painful, frustrating balance she has to strike.
Although most of the characters were characters of colour, they were of the generic brown-skinned sort authors seem to write when they know they need to branch out from white characters but won’t code a real-life culture or ethnicity to them. There were also a number of LGBT+ characters, most notably the prince, Jas.
Those interested in a heart-stopping fantasy journey, the struggles and frustrations of a character in a marginalized class, fierce heroines, romance with mutual respect and organic growth.