Skip to content

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison #BookReview

A fantasy novel of alternate 1880s London, where killers stalk the night and the ultimate power is naming.

This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.

In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.

Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

Title: The Angel of the Crows | Author: Katherine Addison | Publisher: Tor Books | Pub Date: 23/06/2020 | Pages: 448 | ISBN13: 9780765387394| Genre: Urban Fantasy | Language: English | Source: Review Copy | Unstarred Review

Page break indicator for Sci-Fi & Scary

The Angel of the Crows Review

Dr. Doyle never planned on returning to the United Kingdom after the war, but Doyle’s injuries force the doctor to head to London, where Doyle’s limited pension was insufficient to cover living expenses. This prompts Dr. Doyle to search for a flatmate, and an acquaintance introduces Doyle to someone else in a similar predicament. That someone is an angel named Crow.

Crow and Doyle become tenants of 221 Baker Street.

Welcome to what is, much of the time, the London of 1888 we know from history. The murderer who will soon be known as Jack the Ripper is killing women in Whitechapel, but there are also some notable differences from historic London. Angels, vampires, hell-hounds, werewolves and other beings that live among humans. And angels can be part of the Consensus or they can be Nameless or Fallen. Vampiric hunts are legal, but all beings are supposed to be registered.

The worldbuilding is more like an accessory. It comes in pieces, typically only when relevant to the story, as Doyle gets involved with Crow’s crime-solving efforts. Crow has a history of working with the police, and, as a doctor, Doyle is an ideal companion. It is possible for worldbuilding by immersion to be effective; however, because these elements are not pervasive and always crucial to the story (beyond Crow’s identity as an angel) it’s harder to get a clear sense of the world we’ve been dropped in.

The book itself moves from case to case throughout. While the Whitechapel murders will be referenced in the beginning, Crow is not a part of that investigation until later. That is the case that keeps coming up that offers some sense of continuity throughout, although this reads more like several novellas put together than a novel.

In crime fiction, particularly whodunnits, readers often like to follow along with the details of a case and try to solve it. One of the problems here is that there is so much readers do not know about the world and the cases. Readers sometimes lack information that could be relevant because of the approach to worldbuilding and storytelling. The principle of Chekhov’s Gun indicates that everything that’s included in a story will have relevance. Typically, in a movie or story, there will be a reference to a weapon or a piece of information, and it will ultimately have some bearing later in the story. In this respect, the storyteller has provided foreshadowing and the audience can appreciate the fair play involved.

When information isn’t presented until the moment of its relevance, it risks feeling like it’s pulled out of thin air, and that is sometimes the case here.

The premise of this London, with its mythical beings residing alongside humans, was intriguing. The friendship between Crow and Doyle is also solid. Their interactions with the police were stereotypical and, although Lestrade seems at times to be a decent person, for the most part the police are never other than what you’d expect. The cops were generally bull-headed and wrong and unwilling to listen to reason, even from those they’d asked to help with their investigations.

Fans of urban fantasy and Sherlock Holmes may find this book scratches a specific itch for them and enjoy being immersed in a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar for those who like historical crime fiction. The concept behind this work is compelling.

Unfortunately, this is a work with a lot of unrealized potential that has some serious problematic elements. There is a language issue. I’ve read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve also read a lot of historic crime fiction. I understand that some of the language used in The Angel of the Crows may have been appropriate for the era the story takes place in, but not all is appropriate for the era this work has been published in. I felt some of it was not necessary to use. It struck me as walking a very thin tightrope, and some readers may take issue with some of the racial terminology used. There have, for example, always been both appropriate and offensive ways to refer to Romani people. The appropriate ways are not newer, and thus, using an offensive term accomplishes one of three things. It either reveals something about the character who used it, it betrays the ignorance of the writer, or it indicates specific views the writer has. In this one example, the speaker is a minor character who is part of the overall book for approximately 20 pages. Any racism or ignorance on the character’s part is not relevant to their section of the book or the overall work at all, which makes the choice to put what is known to be a slur in her mouth an odd one. While I appreciate the desire to have the language and tone fit the time period, I have ready many historic works that have avoided the use of slurs out of awareness and in consideration of the fact that these books are consumed by contemporary readers. It’s still entirely possible to maintain the tone and style of language without being offensive. While the book wasn’t peppered liberally with problematic words and terms, there are some present that I took note of. I expected some references because of familiarity with the Jack the Ripper investigation. Others caught me by surprise. 

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of retellings. What appealed to me here was the idea of a very different 1888 London, with all of these creatures living among humans. Due to the fact that the worldbuilding is minor and (other than Crow and the odd Nameless) the creatures do not feature consistently throughout the various cases, I didn’t feel as immersed into that world as I’d hoped to be. 

The aforementioned language issue was minor. My feelings about the worldbuilding are a matter of taste. I can say that, as someone who has been to London several times, I projected more from memory than from the book for some of the description and setting details. That, again, could be an issue of the reader’s experience encroaching, so it’s hard for me to objectively say the setting wasn’t fleshed out fully. My impression was that the details were spare and relied on readers having a base of familiarity with London through movies and books. That is my opinion, and others may have a different impression.

I did have a couple significant issues with the book, and these issues adversely affected my reading experience. Since they are based on a reveal that comes at the halfway point I am using a spoiler warning here. I will say that I don’t believe the revelations I am about to discuss are of a nature that the story suffers if readers know about them from the outset. They are not not the type of revelations that change the plot. 

Potential Spoilers

Misgendering. Graphic death. Graphic animal death.

Issue #1 The Secret

At about the halfway point, readers learn that Dr. Doyle is a woman. I struggled with the fact that Doyle is so clearly living as a man and passes as a man for a few reasons. One has to do with Doyle’s time in Afghanistan and serious injuries. It was impossible for Doyle to receive treatment for those injuries from medical professionals and not be exposed as a woman.

Eventually, Doyle admits to using blackmail to make the medical staff keep Doyle’s secret. Doyle threatened to tell all about there being a woman among their ranks, and promised to reveal corruption and nepotism within the military. The fear of exposure seemed enough to ensure that Doyle’s medical license and pension were secure. 

There were some problems with this. For one, Doyle had to earn a medical license before going to Afghanistan. This means Doyle had to pass as a man for a very long time, and also needed the means to fund medical school. It’s clear throughout the story that Doyle was disowned and had no relationship with their family. That certainly raises the question of how Doyle was able to afford school and living expenses for so long. (Yes, there is a history of women presenting as men and working in the medical field in the UK at this time period, but even this individual drew attention that almost prevented them from taking their exams. This is just to note that it is not impossible for a woman to present as a man at the time, but there are practical considerations relevant to this text that bear scrutiny.)

Furthermore, blackmail only goes so far. The very people (primarily medical staff) who agreed to stay silent were hardly in a position to suffer personally if Doyle was exposed. One of them did expose Doyle, which is how a few generals learned of the situation. Apparently they were so concerned about the public becoming aware of nepotism and corruption among the ranks that they, too, stayed silent and approved Doyle’s pension.

We don’t find this out until the final pages of the book, so it feels rather convenient to be thrown in at that point. There’s also the fact that Doyle received treatment in London for a period of time, and the question of why those doctors didn’t reveal the truth. Simply, there were too many people who knew. One of those people told a general, which makes it likely they would tell others because they had broken their pledge to stay silent.

And would one disgraced woman’s word against the entire military establishment, from generals on down the line, be enough for the military to cower in fear? To go so far as to allow Doyle to retain medical credentials and receive a full pension? What would happen if Doyle was exposed later? They would look like fools, and their cover-up would be evident, considering Doyle’s injuries required the use of a walking stick and were obvious to anyone Doyle encountered. Heavens, if they were so corrupt, why not simply kill Doyle? The notion that Doyle’s medals were reason the military would have been embarrassed fall flat. The military could have dismissed those awards as the product of blackmail or inappropriate relations. A lot of people needed to agree that they had too much to lose by exposing Doyle’s secret, and I’m not convinced this was the case.

The practical challenges make it difficult to believe Doyle could have obtained medical credentials at the time, but to believe this secret would be kept so effectively? This was more fantastical than any of the creatures roaming the streets of London.

And, in case you’re wondering, I did not feel there was any indication in the narrative to foreshadow this revelation at the halfway point. Doyle lives very much as a man, dresses as a man, acts like a man, and is referred to with male pronouns on the odd occasion Doyle is not simply referred to as doctor. I, consequently, don’t even know which pronouns are appropriate. In the rare moments when Doyle reflects on their gender identity in the narrative, it doesn’t seem to be that Doyle believed they were male; it seems more that they enjoyed the conveniences of being male and weren’t willing to be limited the way women of the time were.

Honestly, Doyle never seems to suggest the choice to live as a man stems from anything other than the desire to escape the restrictions placed on women during this era. It does not seem to be because they believe they were born the wrong gender. I considered if the author was attempting to make a statement and somehow empower women, but the notion that a woman could only achieve independence and respect was by living as a man undermined that. Refer to pages 435-436 of the arc for my reasoning. (We are typically asked not to quote from arcs because they are not final copies, and I am respecting that.)

Issue #2 Misgendering

Just a few pages after we learn that Doyle is a woman living as a man, we learn that Crow is also, technically, female. He tells Doyle that all Nameless and all angels are female, in as much as asexual beings can be assigned a gender. (The author’s term in the statement – I think they meant non-binary, since asexual refers to low levels of interest in sexual activity, not that the person has no gender. And perhaps my understanding and research are incomplete and asexual is appropriate in this context.)

Crow then goes on to explain that, because humans assign angels domains (when they stop being Nameless), the angels go on to be what they’re expected to be. Never once does Crow say they actually became male. It’s more than they present as expected. And it is not based on their choice.

Unpacking the optics, this is essentially a female being who is stating that, because people insisted on referring to them as a male, they comply and live/present as a male.

Now, at this point, something else needs to be referenced. There’s a scene in which Crow asks Doyle if Doyle wishes to have sex. The reason seems tied to the fact that they’d quarreled and Crow thought this was appropriate. Doyle makes it clear that it isn’t, but also clarifies that Crow does not wish to engage in this activity. Once that is established, it’s clear in the narrative that Doyle considers lack of consent to equate to rape (even if Crow offered). In 1888 London, Doyle has a far more modern viewpoint on the subject. (Legal exemptions permitted marital rape in all of the U.S. until 1975 and it wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that laws changed in the U.K. I’m pointing this out just to establish that 1888 London views about many things weren’t modern.)

So, Doyle is rather a modern thinker on matters of rape. However, forcible misgendering was apparently not a concern at all. 

Doyle then goes on to ask Crow why the Nameless don’t wear dresses then. 

So …. A woman who has spent decades living as a man, who was disowned over this, who has blackmailed military and medical professionals over this … this person needs a minute to understand why Nameless angels would dress as men in 1888 London? These Nameless angels that are forced to hang around bakeries and have little purpose and no identity? Who would then be acting improperly as females hanging about in public?

This felt like one of those moments when a character serves the story rather than acting in character.

Ultimately, Doyle tells Crow that they just don’t see Crow as female.

And Doyle, as the narrator, continues to refer to Crow as ‘he’ throughout the narrative, despite this revelation about Crow’s actual gender. Although (as noted) I won’t provide the exact quote in the arc, Crow clearly tells Doyle that Doyle has never seen a male angel because all angels are female. That means that even named angels who have adjusted and present as male as required are still female.

Now, since Doyle chose to live as a man, I was more forgiving of the potential misgendering that occurred with that character (and really have no idea if I should use he or she). However, having been told that Crow was, in fact, female, and did not choose to become male of their own accord, it didn’t sit well with me that Doyle made it clear they couldn’t see it, and continued to refer to Crow as male. 

One other small note about Doyle’s choice. Doyle enters situations that would be inappropriate for an unwed woman at that time. Doyle’s choice to do so (I am particularly thinking of events in the Baskervilles case) had the potential to damage the reputation of others if Doyle was ever exposed. It is impossible for this choice not to affect an assessment of this character. The likability of Doyle and Crow is a great asset to this story, but later revelations in the work raised issues with Doyle that could not be ignored.

The Heart of the Issue

Publishing is in a time of transition, and as a society we are learning to be sensitive about gender identity issues. As a straight person, am I the best person to tackle issues around gender identity? No. However, I believe reviewers and editors have a responsibility to not simply look at a book for what they get out of it, but to put themselves in other people’s shoes and try to identify issues of potential concern that may be offensive to others or content that may be problematic. This means if we notice something that may be an issue, we need to address it.

After all, reviews are for readers. It’s my job to try to share what does and does not work about a particular book from my perspective, and give readers enough information to decide if the book would interest them. That means it’s my responsibility to note something which could be offensive and even harmful to readers if I am aware of it.

I have no doubt that I could go back and read works I enjoyed in the past and see things now that I did not notice then. That is because we are all learning and growing. However, since I did note these issues now during this read, I am responsible for sharing my observations.

I’ve touched on the issue of racial language already. This brings us back to the issue of gender. It is entirely possible that individuals who are non-binary or transgender could read this work and feel it does a better job of handling this issue than I give it credit for. I do not wish to presume to put words in anyone’s mouth; however, as a reviewer, I do feel it’s important to flag a potential issue for these readers, as well as allies who are sensitive to gender identity issues.

What I can say with certainty is that I wrestled with this issue as I read the work, and it ultimately became a distraction. Occasionally, I will take notes when I am reading a review copy. In this case, I was marking pages and circling passages with pencil as I tried to sort out fair play on the gender issue and language used throughout the story. 

I honestly felt blindsided by the fact that Doyle was a woman, and nothing in the narrative that I noticed had hinted at it through over 200 pages of text. I accepted it as an undeveloped twist and moved forward. Learning that the angel was also female felt like a step too far. I’m guessing the intent was to put a real twist on Holmes and Watson by creating a comparable duo who were female. This didn’t work. The revelation about Crow didn’t impact the story in any respect, other than to make me critically aware of the fact that angels were being misgendered throughout the entire book, and that Doyle did not correct that misgendering once informed of it. Given Doyle’s own identity issues, I expected better.

As I noted in the first part of this review, there are readers this work may appeal to who will enjoy it thoroughly. For myself, I felt it had tremendous potential that wasn’t fully realized, and that was overshadowed by issues that may have been unintentional, but that form the subtext of the narrative. This book’s subtext says forcing someone to live as a gender that they do not consider themselves to be is okay. Its subtext says misgendering people is okay. This book’s subtext says if you think of a person as a specific gender and they tell you that is not their gender, it’s perfectly okay for you to continue referring to them by the gender you assign them.

None of those things are okay. 

Perhaps some people will dismiss the characters and those choices as a product of their time, given the era of the book. That’s their choice, but I can’t accept that. I was hypervigilant, looking for any indication in the narrative that the author was going to do something more with this subtext and make it clear it wasn’t okay that it overshadowed the reading experience. Ultimately, it left a bad taste in my mouth.

I would like to state that this in no way is meant to presume any beliefs of the author. I do think that, as allies, we’re all in a state of growth. I’m not going to assume that the author meant to create a work that conveyed these harmful beliefs about misgendering. Others may read this and not pick up on the issue at all. However, “subtext is not what we say in our story but how we say it. It’s the secondary messages we give our readers. The ones we want them to understand without telling them directly. Subtext adds depth and complexity. It builds an experience that remains in the readers’ awareness.” 

Subtext is what makes you stop short three weeks after finishing a book and go, “That’s what that character meant.” It crawls into your subconscious and lives there while you process it. It can be extraordinarily powerful.

And that is why it can be incredibly harmful.

At a time when we understand why representation matters, we have to work twice as hard to make sure we get it right. I’m not sure what the author intended with the Crow character’s gender issue, but it never sat right with me in the 200+ pages of the book I had to process it. I couldn’t spin it as women proving they were every bit as capable as men because they had to use deception to engage in their activities. I couldn’t spin it as empowerment for women living independently in an era where women had limited options due to gender roles and expectations at the time because they only enjoyed their liberties because they presented as male. They did not champion equality or women’s rights.

I tried to understand the author’s intent, but could not. What I could find was a serious message conveyed through the subtext that concerned me, and that negatively affected my reading experience and impression of the work.

In closing, I’m going to provide a few links, in case you would like to understand more about what misgendering is and why it is harmful.

What is Misgendering?

The Risk of Misgendering Transgender Youth

You can find this book at many retailers via clicking on the appropriate link on Goodreads. (Buying direct from retailers is a good way to support indie authors); however, in the spirit of supporting literacy programs, we would like to point out that you may be able to purchase this book through BetterWorldBooks.

Published inBook ReviewsFantasy Book ReviewsUnstarred Reviews
©Sci-Fi & Scary 2019
%d bloggers like this: