31 Aug 2015

Review: As the Crow Flies

It is not usual for me to indulge in publishing my reviews here on the Magical Realm; however, this particular work was recommended to me by a fellow writer. I, perhaps foolishly, elected to accept. And as they say: unusual situations demand unusual action.

Therefore, here is my review of As the Crow Flies, by Robin Lythgoe.

‘Alex!’ you interrupt; ‘but what the Ark, and all the things you promised? Are there not essays, and poetry, awaiting?’

Well, dear reader: you would be right. I will soon update the Magical Realm with the aforementioned. And since you are no doubt wondering what exactly I’ve been doing these past many days, the answer would be: writing an article. I have sent it to one OpenDemocracy —a small online magazine specialising in human rights, along with foreign and domestic policy alike—which shall consider it within three weeks. Or so they claim. If published, I will inform you here.

And to allay your curiosity: it concerns the FPTP voting system employed here in the UK, along with why it’s a failure, and what to do about it. If OD does not deign to publish it, I will do so here.

As for the Ark: it is under work. I have a few more planning items to concern myself with—I need to ensure coherency within the Ark’s universe, along with a full and accurate portrayal of the world—and doing so will demand more of my time in planning. But rest assured that with 62 pages a-written, progress is respectable.

I will write another episode in the Fallen Saga when time and the fickle heart of my writerly muse permit. Until then, check out my review. You may even want to consider reading the work in question—but not before you’ve read my own book, the Necromancer. I insist!

As the Crow Flies was recommended to me. This is unusual: it is usually I who recommend books, especially if they’re my own. In this instance, the opposite occurred—I was recommended a book, the recommendee being none other than the author herself. I suppose she would be a little opinionated in that though.

Anyway: onto the book. It’s actually rather good—and I don’t say that lightly, being an angry competitor fellow writer. I was most immediately struck by the writing (indeed it was why I was so kind as to review this) so let’s start with that.

Writing

Robin’s style is a curiously formal one; it is rare that one finds formal writing—even in self-proclaimed literary fiction, let alone ‘mainstream’ works—which was, therefore, in itself unusual. It speaks well of my own less-than-casual style. But enough of me!

Robin’s style is also a descriptive one: the details of the world are described beautifully—everything from the ivory figurines, the various and eclectic jewellery, and the manner of the attire—and in wonderful depth. One can easily imagine the sweeping rooflines of Marketh, the vast and desolate fields of the darker country (I found it eerily reminiscent of the Welsh black mountains) and the frightening but awe-inspiring presence of the dragons. As you can perhaps guess, I was quite pleased about this.

What I wasn’t pleased about? The lack of genuine aesthetic prose. Oh, yes; the prose is detailed—and Robin isn’t afraid to bring out the loquacious and the asperity—but there’s never a poetic element to it, never a sense of fully escaping the pages and entering your heart.

Which is a pity. But, there you go.

Aside from that, the minutiƦ of the writing and the execution are worth detailing. Robin’s prose inevitably favours hypotaxis over parataxis, though at times I wished there were more of the latter—it would have worked well in giving the dark country a truly frightening portrayal, and in giving a sense of impetus and energy to some of the action scenes.

In terms of pacing, all was good: there were never times when one was left with a sense of ennui, nor did the action ever overwhelm the senses. I would however point towards the end of the tale, whereby the anticipation and raw energy that should have preceded the finale was instead broken up by far too many minor action scenes. When the finale did come, it was somewhat of an anti-climatic start.

All of this, however, leads me to what is arguably the strongest aspect of this work: the plot.

Plot

As the Crow Flies begins with our darling protagonist—aptly named Crow—attempting to... purloin a certain jewel, from none other than one secret wizard: Baron Duzayan. To be honest, I think it a disappointing start to an otherwise excellent tale.

Yes: there was action. Crow’s powers of theft, espionage, and roof-climbing are really quite remarkable; more foolish souls might even think him possessed of magic, though that is of course nonsense. At least for now. Impressive though they may be, the beginning fails to distinguish itself from more common, less remarkable tales.

Why? Well, because there isn’t a hint of the true scope and power of this novel. Crow, for all his charms, is just a thief. And it is Baron Duzayan’s remarkable wizardly powers that ought be hinted at, and far more insidiously than Robin does. The blurb, also, falls fowl to the same mistake.

The beginning aside, the tale then progresses to have our darling protagonist beaten—I love a good beating; did I mention? It makes for excellent empathic bonding—and is then placed in a dark, deep, cell. Crow, as his namesake suggests, is claustrophobic. Suffice to say that it made for amusing reading.

Once the imprisonment is over, however, Crow is given an ultimatum: help Duzayan procure a dragon’s egg (apparently fictional) or die a miserable death owing to Duzayan’s poison. Thus, we proceed to the real meat of this book.

The journey that Crow undertakes is a compelling one. We travel across vast and (relatively) varied landscapes; we meet bandits, a curious mute girl, and a mysterious old seer; and Crow is forced to travel through a strange underground cave, where dark echoes of a tragedy continue unabated. Here, he is temporarily possessed by the ghosts of the ‘Ancestors’—people burned alive in a terrible war of many years past.

And this is where things start to get interesting. At first, the Ancestors do no more than allow Crow a strange form of magic; he is able to sense emotions, to feel conscious minds, and to detect dishonesty. Later, they begin to speak; to bring long-forgotten knowledge to fore.

I could detail many more fascinating events. I could speak of the dragon, the strange order of magic-wielding priests that guard it, and a great deal more besides; but suffice to say: As the Crow Flies never fails to keep one’s guard up. There is always hidden danger, always unfathomable possibilities; there is action, and energy, and all that it should be.

In short: it is the archetypal High Fantasy novel. And as befits this wonderful genre, the age-old qualities are there—there are creatures of myth and wonder, powers strange and otherworldly (literally), and of course: there are strange new worlds to explore...

World Building

If the plot impresses with its grandeur and its conviction, then the world building comes up short. Sure: there’s detail—there’s imagination, too, in the manner of dress, the architecture (mediaeval and exotic among it equally) and in the cuisine.

But there’s an element of originality that’s missing. There is nothing untowardly remarkable about the technology, or of the language, or even—yes—the architecture. The world feels like another mediaeval fantasy world. Don’t get me wrong: mediaeval fantasy worlds are great—I wouldn’t have written a book in one if they weren’t—but this one is just a little unexceptional.

The religion, also, is elucidated upon: Crow regularly thanks the gods of thieves, of luck, and all manner of other deities. But I would have enjoyed a stronger elucidation still; I wondered at how the temples looked, what manner of rituals they performed, even their creation myths. In short: I wanted more.

Still, I did enjoy the descriptions of luxurious items, of beautiful designs, and of all the things that gave this world detail.

Characterisation

Crow is a wonderful creation. He is at once intelligent, and charming; both boisterous, and thoughtful; and erudite, yet accessible. I found his eye for detail entrancing—and his wits admirable. Crow always seems to have a devilish plan in store; he is able plan, to calculate, and to execute daring stunts with great alacrity.

Tanris, his former enemy turned friend, was also wonderfully well fleshed. He possesses great determination, analytic intelligence (as opposed to Crow’s cunning), and he is also very... human. We feel the pain of an imprisoned wife as if it were his. His mannerisms are unique; he always has a glare, a snarl, a gesture of compassion—he is always quintessentially Tanris.

We are also introduced to a girl, who is mute. This is unfortunate. For a long while, all she does is tag along—at most she is a distraction, more often a nuisance.

But Girl (as Crow takes to name lackadaisically) is more than that. Her muteness makes her easy to dehumanise—her regular crying fits not really helping, nor her simple name—but as time progresses, we begin to learn that she is all too human. She lost her only relatives to a vicious bandit attack. And she cannot voice that trauma. Who would be surprised at her crying; who wouldn’t cry, with no other release?

Robin even goes as far as to create the vestiges of an incipient romance. Girl’s surprising abilities—she is a deadly marksman, a fighter, and also an excellent cook (we love a good cook)—certainly do account for this. Crow’s fearless antics attract her; Girl’s enviable competence attract him.

Is it love? Not yet. But maybe.

I have however noticed that there is a lack of female characters throughout. This is surprising—for a modern fantasy author, and a woman at that—but is not that inconceivable, seeing as to how the tale usually deals with wizards, barons, and the powerful. For whatever reason (be it cultural, physiological, or both of those) women generally don’t populate that section of the population—especially in what is effectively still a mediaeval world.

(I guess it would be more correct to call it an Early Modern world, but I digress.)

Speaking generally, Robin has a perchance for characterisation: she can detail characters through their subtle mannerisms, through their internal struggles, and through some apt description. I cannot fault her in this.

Conclusion

My thoughts have been somewhat confused through this review. Allow me to be clarify, therefore: As the Crow Flies is an excellent, though imperfect, example of High Fantasy. The plot begins uncertainly; but it grows to occupy the mind with feverish insistence, and culminates in a very grand finale. The characters are well-portrayed and human. The writing is formal, accomplished, though at times requiring a little revision—shorter sentences, more parataxis.

All in all, I am glad to have read it. I await the sequel; for dragons and dark magic, my appetite was always insatiable.

Rating: 4/5

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