After having read and loved The Goblin Emperor, I was incredibly excited to see that Katherine Addison had a new book out! I cannot express how quickly I smashed “request” on NetGalley. Unfortunately, I regret to say that this book was a bit of a hot mess. Admittedly, I came into it with slightly incorrect expectations: when I heard that this novel had begun as a Sherlock Holmes wingfic, I instantly made the assumption that I would see some of my favorite tropes from that particular subgenre of fanfic. However, even outside of this mismatch of expectations, I felt that the book had major issues with pacing, character development, worldbuilding, and queer representation. It did not grab my attention at any juncture. Every time I thought it was going to do something interesting, it went nowhere. I felt set adrift and overall dissatisfied.
For those who are unfamiliar with wingfic tropes, it’s important to understand that wingfic is usually very, very gay. It’s a bit like telling someone you wrote a Harry Potter fanfic about Draco / Harry. Someone will click on that with the expectation that this is going to be queer. It’s incredibly jarring to discover that no, actually, it’s really not.
“You didn’t have to come,” I started, but he said, “Doyle, surely you aren’t seriously suggesting you would have left me behind?”
He made me laugh, which was the last thing I was expecting. “No, of course not,” I said.
“Good,” said Crow, “for you wouldn’t have succeeded.”
He stood up, and despite the fact that I disliked the touch of his feathers, I found myself missing the slight weight and static prickle of his wing.
Given this, I expected this to be gay as hell. It was not. Much to my dismay, there was also a very high degree of queer-baiting throughout. I was disappointed. There are so, so many moments where the relationship between Doyle (Watson) and Crow (Sherlock) hints that it will become romantic. Although Crow, as an angel, does not have any sexual desires, this could have been a beautiful ace romance.
To be clear, I’m not at all opposed to deep friendships between main characters rather than romantic entanglements. There are many books that do this very well, such as Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace. Where Archivist Wasp perfectly balances two main characters in a friendship that receives every ounce of attention that a romantic relationship would have, The Angel of the Crows seems to sit off-axis. Their friendship grows, certainly, but it’s interspersed with lines that I can only interpret as queer-baiting. I did not enjoy feeling strung along.
“Doyle, are you still mad at me?”
“Yes,” I said, because all the folktales say you should not lie to an angel. And because I was still mad.
“If . . .” He broke off. I was halfway down the casualty lists when he blurted, “If you have sexual congress with me, will you stop being mad?”
Tea went everywhere. If I’d had a mouthful of toast, I probably would have choked to death. As it was, I wheezed and gasped and finally said, “WHAT?”
“I don’t want you to be mad at me,” Crow explained unhappily. “I thought maybe—”
“That is not what sexual congress is for!”
In addition to these issues, Addison had the sheer audacity to create a fascinating world filled with hellhounds, angelic societies, vampiric hunts, and necrophages…. Only to somehow make them not very interesting. The little bites of information we get about the angels are all terribly intriguing but never explored. Doyle himself is a hellhound; he was infected during the war by a Fallen angel. There’s a mysterious, ominous registration act… but no one properly explains why it’s so bad to be registered. There are strange, magical automata without a hint as to their origin. The whole thing was an exercise in frustration. I wanted to know more. I wanted a deep, highly developed world. The book was certainly long enough to give me that. Instead, I was given just enough to be annoyed.
Some cerberus automata were actually built in the shape of dogs. This one was in human form, save for the three mastiff heads, which its body was built broad and squat to accommodate. It was two-thirds my height and probably that much broader.
“It knows me,” Sholto said, “but it will want to examine the three of you. Brother Bartholomew is becoming more and more paranoid.”
Speaking of length, I expected the novel to focus on a single Sherlock story, going into detail on the intricacies of the crime and the investigation needed to resolve it. Instead, this was a rambling mess of, oh god I don’t know, ten? different mysteries. It sure felt like ten. It dragged on and on. This book was all over the place when it needed focus, clarity, and a proper plot arc. Essentially, Addison smooshed all the Sherlock Holmes novels and then a few short stories all into one book. We had Moriarty and Jack the Ripper and The Hound of the Baskervilles all overlapping each other at once. It was just a bit too much. It was hard to tell which plotline was mean to be the “real” one tying everything together. This book could have had half the page count and twice the worldbuilding, had it only had some of the fat trimmed off it.
~* SPOILERS AHEAD *~
One of my largest frustrations with the book, beyond what has already been mentioned, was the queer representation. Generally speaking, the more queer characters a novel has the happier I am. When it came to The Angel of the Crows, though… they felt forced and shoehorned in. I don’t really understand why you’d make your main character queer and then make it almost entirely irrelevant to their character arc as a whole. About two thirds into the novel, it’s revealed that Doyle is, in fact, a trans man. Which is great! Beyond a few paragraphs explaining how he’d hidden his secret while in the army, this becomes almost completely irrelevant to the remainder of the plot. It felt cowardly. Beyond that, he even identifies himself as “a woman” in conversation with Crow. Now, I cannot speak for trans folks of the 1800s, but I cannot imagine one saying that they’re actually a woman.
“You know I’m a woman, Crow.” If he knew I was a hell-hound, he had to know that.
“Yes,” he said, “but what does that have to do with it?”
“Well, for one thing, it isn’t legal for two women to marry. For another thing, I feel quite sure that Miss Morstan doesn’t want to marry a woman.”
Similarly, it turns out that all angels, including Crow, are biologically female. However, angels may present as either men or women depending on how they are perceived. This, too, never became relevant again. This sort of gender presentation and assignment was never explored in a meaningful way. It has so, so much potential: I love the idea of a book that goes into what it means to have an identity imposed on you by society and your surroundings in the way that the angels do here. Sadly, it didn’t do this. At the end of the day…. it was effectively just one more instance of queer-baiting: Crow revealed this tidbit shortly after Doyle spoke to him about being trans but preferring women.
~* END SPOILERS *~
All in all, this book is fine if you’re hankering for a Sherlock Holmes retelling with fairly good prose. If you can look past all of the opportunities for engagement and exploration, it’s only real issue is the pacing. I was not able to look past that. This book had so, so much potential. It wasted it at every step.
Thank you to Tor for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
About the Author
I was born and raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the secret cities of the Manhattan Project. I studied English and Classics in college, and have gone on to get my M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature. My novels are published by Ace Books; I also have a collaboration with Elizabeth Bear, A Companion to Wolves, from Tor. My short stories have appeared in lots of different places, including Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Alchemy, Weird Talees, and Strange Horizons. I collect books, and my husband collects computer parts, so our living space is the constantly contested border between these two imperial ambitions.