Book Review: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
by V. Shalace [October 4, 2021]
Set in an alternate 1880s London where supernatural beings like vampires and werewolves live ordinary lives alongside human beings, The Angel of the Crows follows the adventures of army veteran Dr. J. H. Doyle. Doyle is returning to the city from the war in Afghanistan with a crippled leg and more than a few secrets and becomes roommates with an angel named Crow. As the two learn to live together at 221B Baker Street, Doyle is drawn into Crow’s work as a consulting detective for the London police.
I had mixed feelings about this book.
For anyone familiar with the original Sherlock Holmes series, the parallels in this book are obvious. It’s usually very difficult for me to enjoy such a story. I’m an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, and I can’t help being extremely critical of stories that tread too closely to it. You could say I’m the kind of person who almost never enjoys the movie adaptation of a book that I like. However, in that regard, this story had an advantage in that it changed the names of the two most important characters. This helped separate, in my mind, Crow and Doyle from Holmes and Watson, making them their own characters and helping to prevent me from constantly comparing the two. (That proved extremely important, since I found the two sets of protagonists to be very, very different).
That said, what really made this book a good read for me was the setting.
First, I really enjoyed how, rather than treating supernatural creatures like angels and werewolves as anomalies, the world of this novel integrates them into society as simply another facet of the population. In other words, no one is especially shocked or surprised to discover that, for instance, someone is a shape-shifter. What might be considered arcane knowledge in other worlds is more or less common knowledge among the populace, and so everyone can and will discuss supernatural issues as just another everyday problem. Poltergeist activity is considered a perfectly reasonable cause of disappearing shoes, and hiring a clairvoyant is a perfectly normal solution when searching for something you lost. I found this matter-of-factness about the supernatural quite refreshing, and it made room for the author to reinvent some of the Sherlock Holmes cases in ways that were different from the originals in unusual ways.
Second, I appreciated how, though the author drew heavily on popular supernatural species and lore, she tweaked things in little ways. Rather than being your typical three-headed dog gate guardian, for example, a Cerberus in this story is a mechanical creation designed to act as gate guards and bodyguards with additional capabilities included such as tracking skills depending on the requirements of the purchaser. Werewolves are considered to be good, reliable citizens and are taught from a young age to control their tempers. These little details help put the author’s own spin on otherwise old ideas and encouraged me to keep reading just to find out more about the world.
I don’t have much to say about the plot of the story. The book is structured as a series of smaller cases with a larger murder mystery in the background tying it all together. The cases themselves include variations on original Sherlock Holmes mysteries such as the Copper Beeches, the Speckled Band, and the Hound of the Baskervilles. If you are well-versed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s versions, you may even recognize parallels in the dialogue.
Unlike in Conan Doyle’s stories which center heavily on Holmes, in The Angel of the Crows, Dr. Doyle tended to play a larger role in the cases than Crow. Also unlike Conan Doyle’s work, I did not get that feeling of comfortable rapport and friendship between the protagonists. I often didn’t sympathize with the decisions J. H. Doyle and Crow made or the ways in which they reacted, and there were several instances where small reactions, thoughts, and statements made it difficult for them to really resonate with me. However, I think the lively nature of this book and the unique universe in which it takes place more than made up for the scattering of details that I found more jarring.