The Angel of the Crows
by Katherine Addison
A fantasy novel of alternate 1880s London, where killers stalk the night and the ultimate power is naming.
This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.
In an alternate 1880s London, angels inhabit every public building, and vampires and werewolves walk the streets with human beings under a well-regulated truce. A fantastic utopia, except for a few things: Angels can Fall, and that Fall is like a nuclear bomb in both the physical and metaphysical worlds. And human beings remain human, with all their kindness and greed and passions and murderous intent.
Jack the Ripper stalks the streets of this London too. But this London has an Angel. The Angel of the Crows.
I received an eARC of The Angel of the Crows from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I can sum up this novel in one word: frustrating.
The Goblin Emperor is my favourite novel, but I’m actually not heartbroken that I didn’t love this second novel by Katherine Addison because I wasn’t sure if it would be for me when I read the blurb, which is why I’m glad I was able to receive a copy via NetGalley (and a big thank you to the publisher for letting me read it early). I love The Goblin Emperor so much that I don’t expect another book by Katherine Addison to wow me as much as that one still does, so I’m genuinely fine that this one isn’t for me.
I do have some issues with it, though, and one of my first issues is with the way it’s been marketed. Once you get to the Author’s Note at the end of this book you’ll discover that this novel started out as Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and yet the fact that this novel is essentially a Sherlock Holmes retelling hasn’t been mentioned anywhere in the blurb. I wish I’d known it was because I have no real interest in a Sherlock Holmes retelling – I’d much rather just read Sherlock Holmes – and I do think it’s a little sneaky for them not to market it as a retelling when so much of this novel is borrowed from the original stories.
This is a novel made up of several little novellas and novelettes which retell various Sherlock Holmes stories with the over-arching plot of the Jack the Ripper murders (we’ll come back to that, believe me), but if you’re a huge Sherlock Holmes fan you’re going to know exactly where each of these stories are going. I know you could say that for any retelling, but because these stories are also set in a version of Victorian London there isn’t an awful lot of difference at the very core of this novel.
The really frustrating thing is that the differences – the fact that this is an alternate London with vampires, werewolves, angels and hell hounds – are so compelling. I still love Addison’s writing and, for all their similarities to Holmes and Watson, I did really enjoy her protagonists, Crow and Dr. Doyle. This could have been a book I loved if she’d only changed the plot, because while I think the best way to describe this book is as a Sherlock Holmes retelling it feels more like it’s been rewritten, and it often left me wondering what the point of the book is.
I know that sounds harsh, but if a novel is going to be so similar to its source material then am I not better off just reading the source material? Gah! There were so many elements of this story that I could have loved, but I couldn’t get over how all this cool, supernatural content Addison added to her version of London ended up feeling rather bogged down by its need to be similar to a Sherlock Holmes story.
I also had a real issue with how this novel handled Jack the Ripper and the Whitechapel murders. Unfortunately for this novel, it’s publishing the year after Hallie Rubenhold’s fantastic The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper was published, which was my favourite book of 2019. It’s such a brilliant piece of research which sheds light on the lives these women led and how there’s no evidence that three of the five women were ever sex workers.
To then see all of these women referred to as ‘prostitutes’ throughout this novel was really frustrating—particularly when Crow is supposed to be a master of deduction. The Five was hardly under the radar last year and I’m surprised Addison nor her editor decided to make some changes, even if they just changed some of the wording in this book, because they have had time. The Five was published at the beginning of 2019, and the hardcover of this novel isn’t due out until September 2020. It seems like such a strange book to ignore if you’re going to publish a novel about Jack the Ripper in its wake.
I so wish Addison had ignored Jack the Ripper and ignored the original Sherlock Holmes stories to tell us a more original tale with this very cool alternate Victorian London she created. I’m not usually a fan of angel books but I loved the way Addison wrote them and I think she has a real talent for writing about this century – in a similar way to the way Marie Brennan writes The Memoirs of Lady Trent, which are set in a world inspired by Victorian Britain – but I don’t think she strayed far enough away from her source material in this instance.