The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen
A future chieftain.
Fie abides by one rule: look after your own. Her Crow caste of undertakers and mercy-killers takes more abuse than coin, but when they’re called to collect royal dead, she’s hoping they’ll find the payout of a lifetime.
A fugitive prince.
When Crown Prince Jasimir turns out to have faked his death, Fie’s ready to cut her losses—and perhaps his throat. But he offers a wager that she can’t refuse: protect him from a ruthless queen, and he’ll protect the Crows when he reigns.
A too-cunning bodyguard.
Hawk warrior Tavin has always put Jas’s life before his, magically assuming the prince’s appearance and shadowing his every step. But what happens when Tavin begins to want something to call his own?
A guilty admission: I came for the crows, because I’m inexplicably attracted to anything that has to do with crows, literal or figurative. I stayed for the impeccably built world, and the strong and well-written characters. Everything about this book was so new and refreshing, starting with the first line: “Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.” What. An. Opener. From the beginning, I was drawn in, first by the opening line and then by the beautifully macabre tone of the whole story. By the first chapter, I was hooked.
I loved all our three main characters, but my favourite by far was Fie. You asked for a morally grey female protagonist? You have one in Fie, who’s cunning and cutthroat–and more with her words than either a blade or magic, though certainly she’s dangerous in that regard as well. Due to her caste, Fie builds up walls to protect herself and her band, spits venom when she’s angry, and basically has very little of a filter. She takes a long time to warm up to Tavin and Jasimir, the two other main characters–who eventually become part of Fie’s own band of crows. Both the friendship–and the relationship she has with Tavin–are very slow burn, which makes it all the more heartwearming when Fie realizes she actually cares about them. The dynamics between the three were excellent, filled with snark and bickering that show just how tight their bonds become during the book.
The setting was so vivid and different from so many books I’ve read before in a lot of ways. I would say that it is somewhat of a generic medieval setting, but it doesn’t feel quite as generically European as a lot of fantasy, and there’s some twists that set it apart from other generic medieval settings — namely, the plague, and the whole culture of the crows. I’ve always found plagues and diseases fascinating, so having one as a centerpiece of The Merciful Crow made the setting so interesting. The culture of the crows are based around the plague, a duty they’re forced to do, and it shapes the caste’s whole existence from the clothes that they wear to the slang that they use, “fouled up” being one that stands out, and it all makes the world feel so much more alive.
Not to mention the masks the crows wear when they go burn the bodies, delightfully reminiscent of the masks plague doctors wore during outbreaks of the bubonic plague. The magic system of the crows as well slots in perfectly with the whole tone of the book. Though the magic of the other castes may be fairly typical, I loved that the crows used teeth to draw their magic. It was creepy and I adored it.
The pacing was excellent, along with the writing. Margaret Owen has a very, very distinct voice that makes the whole atmosphere of The Merciful Crow that much more vivid, and the book tumbles on at a steady pace, danger always lurking ahead. Fie’s narration makes it clear that all of them are straining towards their goal, one step at a time, days walking and nights keeping watch and catching as much sleep as they can. It never stops being tense and exciting, even during the quiet, character-driven moments.
Also, one thing I absolutely adored was the casual queerness of the book–yes, the main relationship is F/M, but there are several queer side characters. Jasimir is gay. It’s not a big deal–there’s even a throwaway mention of a son being brought in as a potential suitor for him. Tavin is pan. There’s a character in Fie’s crow band who uses they/them pronouns and it’s so normalized that I didn’t even notice until the book was nearly over.
If you’re looking for a book with excellent world building, a phenomenal atmosphere, and characters that will latch onto your heart, I would definitely recommend you check out The Merciful Crow.
content warnings | death, murder, disease
representation | POC, pan rep, gay rep, non-binary rep
Thanks to the publisher and Edelweiss for providing me with a review copy.
what did you think about the merciful crow?? what are your favourite macabre books??