Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows. Tor Books, 2020. Pp. 448. ISBN 978-0-7653-8739-4. $24.99.

Reviewed by Cait Coker

The Angel of the Crows is the sort of high concept story which should be ridiculous and yet totally works: Sherlock Holmes meets “war in Heaven,” or rather, its aftermath. Nineteenth century Afghanistan remains Afghanistan, but now with fallen angels and hellhounds. (The BBC Sherlock, another recent albeit problematic retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eponymous detective stories, similarly played with a background conflict in Afghanistan that was specifically twenty-first century.) Addison’s novel isn’t a straightforward retelling of Sherlock or Doyle, but nonetheless riffs cleverly on familiar plot beats to tell a story at a slant. Sherlock is an angel called Crow and Watson is called Doyle; neither of them are the characters that we already know so well, except for how they are.

Let me back up for a moment. Addison is upfront in an “Author’s Note” that the novel has its origins in a Sherlock wingfic (a genre of fanfic in which a character has wings), and the book begins with dual epigraphs quoting lines from the BBC series as well as one of the original Doyle stories: “Nothing is more deceptive than an obvious fact” Sherlock states in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (1891). Thus the tone is set not only for this novel but how for we the readers should interpret it. The joy of fanfiction, both in the reading and the writing, is not just in adding to known stories but in transforming them; indeed, the game for many is to see exactly how far a story can be changed and still remain the same. Knowing something of Doyle’s Sherlock stories is integral to making sense of Angel in some ways, and yet as much if not more pleasure can be gleaned from these iterations of the characters as could be gotten from them either in their written nineteenth century iterations or their televised 2010s incarnations.

Here I must confess that my own attempts to read the original Sherlock stories left me cold both as an adolescent and as an adult, and while I enjoyed some elements of the BBC series I was honestly baffled by its runaway success. The Angel of the Crows I enjoyed very much for its own sake, delighting in those references to the earlier texts that I recognized but also likely totally missing many more. Does this book stand on its own? That I’m honestly not sure; reading it is the experience of reading a work by a fan author you love that takes place in a fandom (whether book or media) that you aren’t familiar with—I’m aware that I’m missing context, but I’m having enough fun to enjoy the story for its own sake.

And speaking of the story itself: This isn’t a conventional novel by any means, nor is it a set of independent short stories; like everything else, it is both a single tale and a collection of episodes linked into a continuing narrative. There is a logical conclusion rather than the story coming to an abrupt halt, but this too feels like it could be a jumping-off point to further adventures if the author so wishes (and I do hope she does). Crow and Doyle meet, become roommates and then friends, solve mysteries, and have a queer friendship. And it is very queer, albeit not sexual; the fannish preference for reading the BBC’s version of Sherlock as an asexual is clearly present, and there is a major spoiler in the uncovering of one character’s gender and sex. (Did this plot point make sense in the context of the story? Yes. Was it a delightful discovery gently dropped in medias res, blink-and-you-might-miss-it, and left there to percolate beautifully, lending a new resonance to everything? Also yes.)

Fannish reading can be contentious in some circles: the same elements that make a text pleasant to one reader is going to put another off entirely, and this book is very fannish in its idiom. In many ways Sherlock Holmes is the first mega-franchise with its own literal long-running fan club (the Baker Street Irregulars were founded in 1936 and are still extant), but to some it is still quasi-literary due to its venerable age. As such, The Angel of the Crows is inherently a controversial work to some simply for what it is and the ways it transforms well-known characters and properties. Therefore it is a vital and necessary read for anyone who fancies themselves a connoisseur of Sherlockiana, a delightful read for those like myself who know just enough to get into trouble, and likely an irksome puzzle for those expecting either a conventional fantasy or Sherlock work. But to all, I recommend this book with great enthusiasm.

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