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 a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
It’s probably first important to point out: The Angel of the Crows first started as a Sherlock wingfic. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, wingfic is a fairly common sub-genre in the fanfiction community for stories where the characters are given wings. How/why they have wings is unspecified. They can be angels/devils/some other supernatural creature, humanity as a whole has evolutionarily evolved to have wings, they were the result of human experimentation, etc. In this world, there exists a society of angels, and our Sherlock character is one of them.
I point this out for two reasons. Firstly, because this only gets mentioned in the Author Notes after finishing the book, it helped me reframe and clarify some of the perceptions I already had. And secondly, because it amplified the disappointments I already had with the book.
I’ll start with the first point. I’ve read my share of Sherlock Holmes retellings over the years, but The Angel of the Crows easily comes closest to the original material. Set in 1880s Victorian England, our Watson character (Dr. Doyle) comes back wounded from Afghanistan, complains to his friend that he won’t find a flatmate, then meets the Sherlock character (Crow) later that afternoon and within a week they move into 221b Baker St. Sound familiar so far?
They work their way through A Study in Scarlet, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, The Hounds of Baskervilles, and then The Speckled Band, in that order. In the backdrop, the Jack the Ripper murders are taking place and Crow (Sherlock) is getting increasingly frustrated at being unable to solve them. Also, there’s a whole slew of supernatural societies (a flock of angels residing throughout London, werewolf packs, a powerful vampire den run by a Moriarty) place throughout this version of London.
The problem is, none of the added elements seem to matter. While a detail might turn to the supernatural (the victim’s a vampire! what if the hound is actually a werewolf?), the overarching story remains painfully the same. The day-to-day behavior of character groups may be affected because, surprise Moriarty’s a vampire or there’s an angel blocking my way, in the long run there’s no real effect on the outcome. There’s no real effect that these elements contribute. Yeah, it’s kinda cute that Crow emotes through his wings instead of his face (because he can’t blush, we are reminded over and over again), but I wanted to know more about the impact angels have on England society, details into how the Vampire covens operate, or insight into the formation of werewolf packs.
Even before knowing that this started as Sherlock fanfic, I had my guesses. Dr. Doyle and Crow are written so closely to the original characters, they may as well have been the original characters with different names. For the first 40%, it was genuinely hard for me to differentiate the two. Crow did eventually manage to evolve into his own character (somewhat), but Doyle remained static. Between that and the lack of original plot, reading that this was original fanfic hit me with big “ohhhhhhhh”.
Moving onto the second point, one of my biggest disappointments when reading this was that Crow and Doyle never establish a more ‘fixed’ relationship. They start as amicable flatmates, go on detective-y adventures, each undergo emotional trauma that the other helps them deal with, and end up… amicable flatmates. There’s hints, I guess, that the two of them view each other as something more, but to my great disappointment, it never really gets explored.
Of course, knowing that this was fanfic just makes that disappointment so much worse. Those familiar with the Sherlock fandom will know the extreme to which John and Sherlock get shipped. For anybody unfamiliar with the term ‘Johnlock’, Google it. I dare you. I’ve read romance novels where the main pairing has less chemistry with each other than these two did. So that fact that the two did not end up together, or even have some level of discussion about it? Disappointing.
Fanfiction-related complaints aside, I did have issues with other components. For one, the pacing. The Angel of the Crows is written in a Victorian-esque style, which already forces me to read slower. But there were just certain arcs, particularly the Baskerville arc, that just dragged. I read enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories because I find the character of Sherlock Holmes fascinating. So when Doyle ditches Sherlock to have his own adventures, when Doyle ditches Sherlock for nearly a fifth of the book, I’m not very happy. Especially when Doyle is the least interesting character of the cast.
The overarching Jack of the Ripper arc also felt both unnecessarily stretched out and anticlimactic. Keeping with the mystery of the real Jack the Ripper murders, Crow offers no deductions than what is known about the real murders. And the real murders left behind very little. Which leaves Crow and Doyle doing absolutely nothing to actually help solve the murders and Crow just angrily telling the police they’re wrong about whatever theory they cook up. In the end, when Jack is finally ‘caught’, the whole even happens in about twenty pages with very little fanfare and left me thinking, I endured the Baskerville arc for this?
I finish with a more minor complaint. For a book about deductions, there’s very little deducing. My favorite part about Sherlock Holmes stories is the deductions Sherlock makes from even the smallest amount of overlooked evidence. Emphasis on evidence. Beyond the initial deductions in the Study in Scarlet arc and the ones about Doyle’s pocket watch (both from the original material), Crow doesn’t really deduce things. He often makes conjectures that happen to be right, but he rarely seems to actually present evidence to back up his claims. Purely by power of the protagonist is he right and the police wrong.
Overall, I rate this book a 3.5/5. Despite how much I rag on it in this review, I found the writing and Crow to be quite interesting. However, the pacing and the lack of depth on the supernatural aspects really hurt my enjoyment of the overall story.
r/Fantasy 2020 Bingo Squares
- Novel published in 2020
Publisher: Tor Books