Katherine Addison’s two books have a theme, which is that I don’t quite know what to think about them when I finish them. I loved her debut, The Goblin Emperor, but my review reads like I hated it, and nothing I could do while working on it could remove that tone so I gave up and rolled with it.
The Angel of the Crows is one of those books where once you know the premise you know whether you want to read the book or not. It apparently started off as the literary equivalent of a palate cleanser; Addison admits in the afterword that the book was originally Sherlock Holmes wingfic, which is not a thing I knew existed: it is a subgenre of fanfic where characters are given wings, because Reasons. The main character, Dr. J.H. Doyle, is a stand-in for Watson, right down to having been injured in Afghanistan, and his roommate at 221 Baker Street, Crow, is the Holmes of the series.
Except Crow is an angel, and Doyle’s injury was dealt by a fallen angel in Afghanistan, and rather inconveniently has transformed him into a hellhound, which is not quite a werewolf because there are werewolves in the book too. And vampires. And a whole mess of other things. So this is basically Sherlock Holmes fanfic crossed with an urban fantasy book, except doing away with the standard trope of urban fantasy, which is that all of the nonhumans everywhere are generally unknown to the general public. Also, they end up hunting Jack the Ripper, because of course they do. I thought for a moment she’d found a way to work Rasputin into it too, but that turns out to not be the case.
The thing is, the book just misses being great. Its first chapter might be one of the best first chapters I’ve ever read, particularly in how it handles basic worldbuilding and letting you know what sort of story you’re in for. The problem is the structure of the book– the Jack the Ripper thing is a common thread through several more or less independent sections, each of which basically retells a single Sherlock Holmes story. As a single, unified novel, it ends up feeling really choppy, and if you are like me and you are fairly familiar with the Holmes stories, it ends up dragging quite a bit by the end of its 460 pages. The Ripper throughplot also ends somewhat unsatisfyingly, mostly because it doesn’t have room to be handled properly.
I really wish this had been a series of novellas, is what I’m getting at; crammed all together into one book it simultaneously feels too long and that each individual story is rushed, and that’s not a good way for a book to feel. As a novella series there could have been a bit more room to breathe and a bit more worldbuilding, because I absolutely want to know more about this world and see more of these characters, hopefully keeping the Holmes framework but not literally feeling the need to retell The Hound of the Baskervilles. If I find out she’s written a sequel, I’m still all over it.
The next section will involve discussing a major spoiler, so feel free to not read it if such things will bother you.
Before I say anything here, I want to make it clear that I’m using the pronouns the book uses, and that this is kind of a messy thing to talk about, so if anyone feels like I’ve screwed something up in my language, 1) you are probably right, and 2) feel free to call me out about it and I’ll rewrite if necessary.
So, Dr. J.H. Doyle, referred to almost exclusively as either “Doyle” or “Dr. Doyle” throughout the book, is … well, definitely assigned female at birth, and I could probably safely justify simply saying “a woman.” Doyle is referred to as “he” almost exclusively throughout the book, and even once it’s made clear to Crow that Doyle presents as a man because women would not have had opportunities to go fight in Afghanistan and become doctors, Crow continues to refer to Doyle as male even in private conversations between the two of them. I have seen some blurbs and commentary about this book that talks about trans characters, and that language is absent from the book and it’s not entirely clear how Doyle feels about his gender.
This gets especially weird in the retelling of The Sign of the Four, which ends with Watson getting married; in Addison’s retelling, Miss Morstan expects Doyle to propose to her at the end, and Doyle instead tells her that he cannot ask her to marry him because, quote, “I’m not a man,” and a moment later refers to himself as “my father’s only daughter.” But there is never any other point in the book, again, including in private, where Doyle seems to genuinely think of himself (there’s that pronoun difficulty again) as female, and even the conversation with Miss Morstan only happens because Doyle feels forced into a corner. There’s also not any angst at any point about having to lie to everyone; Doyle seems perfectly content with presenting as male to everyone. And it’s also clear that Doyle is at least attracted to Miss Morstan. The entire marriage expectation bit all comes off as really awkward and part of me wonders why Addison didn’t simply omit that subplot. Or, hell, pull a Some Like It Hot and make her good with it.
Also, remember, Doyle is a hellhound, so the character spends all sorts of energy on hiding his identity from people throughout the book. There is considerable angst about the hellhoundery.
This is followed up with a sequence where Crow, who is also referred to with exclusively male pronouns, explains that all angels are female, “insofar as it makes sense to apply gender to asexual beings,” but that some of them basically just present as male, because … well, because Reasons, I guess; I never felt like I adequately understood what was going on there.
So, yeah, if this book landed on your radar because of trans representation, that’s not quite what’s going on here, although it’s … close, I guess? Maybe? I dunno.
12:03 PM, Sunday June 28th: 2,520,984 confirmed cases and 125,588 Americans dead.