Book Notes: The Angel of the Crows

This morning I finished Sarah Monette’s latest novel, the second published under the pseudonym Katherine Addison. I still haven’t read the first, The Goblin Emperor, but I’m a great admirer of the The Doctrine of Labyrinths, an epic fantasy series published under her own name that’s as much about the mental traumas of its half-brother protagonists as it is about the fates of nations. I also quite enjoy her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, period horror tales in the mold of Lovecraft and M. R. James but with a modern psychological touch. At its best, Monette’s work breathes new life into familiar tropes of popular genre fiction, which more than compensates for recurrent issues with narrative momentum and structure. Alas, The Angel of the Crows has an abundance of the latter and not much of the former.

The premise is doubly high concept: ” ‘Fantasy Sherlock Holmes’ meets ‘Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper.’ ” Dr. J. H. Doyle returns from an encounter with a fallen angel in Afghanistan bearing a limp, a deeper spiritual wound, and at least one terrible secret. Doyle soon finds lodgings with Crow, an unconventional angel who assists the police and the public in solving bizarre crimes. The dynamic between Doyle, wounded, private, world-weary, and honorable, and Crow, unearthly, curious, naive, and blunt, is the novel’s strongest feature; this would, frankly, be a better book if it had more irrelevant dialogue and less plot. The Ripper murders are used to provide a connective tissue, but the bulk of the text is given over to retellings of three of the Holmes novels (no love for The Valley of Fear) and a couple short stories. Fantasy elements are sprinkled in, and some outdated attitudes toward race and ethnicity are adjusted, but there’s nothing especially clever about how Monette reworks the canon. There’s also remarkably little ratiocination, and what there is is rudimentary.

Even the fantasy elements feel perfunctory, with an emphasis on breadth rather than depth, as if Monette has invented just as much as she needs to push the story along and doesn’t want us to linger or look below the surface. In addition to three varieties of angels there are vampires, hemophages, werewolves, hell-hounds, and more, but only the angels and to a much lesser extent the vampires are developed in ways that make them more than stock fantasy creatures. I can’t help feeling that less would have been more in this case: the angels are really all the novel needs from a perspective of world-building, and what’s done with them is intriguing but underdeveloped.

The deepest problem is that, for all that there are six distinct major plotlines here, there’s no single story that needs telling. The recastings of the Holmes canon feel dutiful rather than inspired, and the Jack the Ripper thread, after several passages in which the characters awkwardly attempt to fit the senseless, deranged brutality of the Whitechapel murders into the world of the period detective story, is resolved in an astonishingly abrupt and perfunctory manner. Some important character developments grow out of that resolution, and those sequences are effective on a sentimental level, but as the climax to a novel that has put more emphasis on plot developments than on character, it’s lackluster.

That’s the paradox of The Angel of the Crows: it’s rich in incident and each section is briskly paced and eminently readable, yet it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. This material might have been better served by being split into short stories and novellas, though I suppose that would only serve to highlight how uninspired the individual pastiches are. In the Kyle Murchison Booth stories, Monette reworks the tropes of the antiquarian ghost story to get at different types of human frailty, but all she does here is rearrange century-old plots and sprinkle some magic on top. I can only hope that if she writes more in this universe, which there’s certainly room to do, she’ll focus on developing story concepts that play to her strengths rather than her weaknesses.

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