Monday, December 27, 2021

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr

John Crowley
Completed 12/27/2021, Reviewed 12/27/2021
4 stars

This is another one of those books that I found to be well-written and even may call profound, but didn’t quite work for me.  It’s a tour through western civilization through the eyes of a Crow.  It’s not just any Crow, but the first to bear a name and one who achieves a sort of immortality.  The prose is so lush, it’s almost poetry.  The perspective, that of a Crow, is remarkable.  Yet for all its gloriousness, I was rather bored by it.  This book won the 2018 Mythopoeic Award and was nominated for several others.  

Dar Oakley’s story is conveyed by a human in whose garden he falls, sick with a bird flu.  Amazingly, Dar can speak and communicates with the human, telling him stories of his long life.  The story begins apparently in Europe, with the first People living in tribes.  Dar sees a couple of two legged beings wearing animal skins carrying spears.  Eventually, he sees the whole tribe.  He befriends a young girl, known as Fox Cap, who becomes a shaman in her tribe.  Dar witnesses battles over territory as well as life and death in the tribe.  With the Fox Cap, he goes on a journey in which he acquires immortality.  Dar lives a very long life, but then dies and is reborn somewhere else.  His adventures take him to Ireland where he lives with a brother in a religious order, on a boat ride to the New World with a boy who may have been St. Brendan the Navigator, in America where he befriends a Native American medicine man, through the Civil War, with a psychic woman, and through a personal battle with a Crow hunter.  Finally, his story takes him to the narrator who is a dying widower.  And with most of the People who develops close relationships with, he has the ability to communicate with them.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that Dar Oakley is not an anthropomorphized animal.  He’s a Crow and throughout the book, he interacts with other Crows as such as well as when he interacts with humans.  He and the other Crows do all the things Crows do, live in colonies, mate, and search for food.  The whole beginning of Dar’s dealings with People is based on the fact that they have battles, leaving their dead, which is food for the Crows.  

The book is also a grand meditation on life and death, through Dar’s own life and immortality as well as that of the People he encounters.  Being immortal, he must deal with the death of his mates and friends, both Crow and People.  And being a Crow, as known through mythology, he has access to the underworld.  It is there he acquires his immortality while traveling with Fox Cap on her shamanic journey.  In one particularly dramatic sequence, he follows the Irish brother into Hell to help purge him of his sins.  

The one thing that left me cold though was that I never felt like developed a relationship with Dar.  Rather, I did with his People companions, particularly Fox Cap and the Irish brother.  I also enjoyed Dar’s battle against the Crow hunter who steals his daughter and trains her as a lure for other Crows.  The Crow hunter was deliciously evil.  But I think this lack of empathy with Dar was what kept me from feeling fully engaged in the story at the various points where he is not attached to a human, or when he is just doing Crow stuff.  

I think this book is really wonderful but boring.  It’s smart, inventive, and lushly written.  It just couldn’t keep my interest.  Still, I give it four stars out of five because I recognize what a masterpiece Crowley has written here.  If I went on feelings alone, I would have only given it three stars.  But it is so much more than that.  I think for the right reader, this book would be mind-blowing.  Crowley also won several awards for a much earlier novel which I will be reading soon.  I’m interested to see what that one will be like.  Crowley has only written ten novels in his long career and I think it definitely shows in this one that he takes great care in what and how he writes.

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