Sunday, June 23, 2019

John Crowley, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymir (2017)

Here's a novel by John Crowley, the author of--among other things--the epic Little, Big and the flawed but fascinating four-volume Ægypt Cycle, which asks the question: what if Renaissance cosmology was actually true at the time; it just later became not-true and never-had-been-true? I want to reread it. It's really cool. Anyway, this is his first work of fantasy since that was finished in 2007, so it's a notable thing. It had been on my radar for a long time, and now I've read it. Hey!

This novel is narrated by a man living in a sort of entropic winding-down of the world that you sometimes see. Even putting that aside, his wife has died and he's nearing the end of his life, when he takes in an injured crow and sort of befriends it. That crow is Dar Oakley, and he is no ordinary crow. He and the narrator learn to communicate, and Dar Oakley tells his story. It turns out he is no ordinary crow, but rather the sort of mythic, immortal ur-crow about whom stories are told ("We're made of stories now, brother," a similar coyote tells him late in the narrative. "It's why we never die if we do.") In fact, Dar Oakley dies a number of times over the course of the narrative, and lives a number of different lives (and these are just the ones he tells about): from the Iron Age to a Medieval monastary to the earliest incursions of Europeans to the New World to the American Civil War--Dar Oakley has been there, and had relationships of various sorts with various birds and various people.

It's a difficult book to get a handle on, that's for sure. Obviously there's a lot of mythology, and also a lot of how birds are compared to humans: you may think of Watership Down in places, and the folk tales within Watership Down in others. Then, there are some bits about people that are more "realistic," if I can use that word.

I mean, it's fascinating stuff, both similar to and different from Crowley's previous work: on the one hand, you have the aspect of it where it's difficult to say how the fantastical elements are actually working, and if they're actually fantastic. That ambiguity is a big thing for Crowley, and he does it well. And yet, this is probably his first novel that's so definitively fantastical. You don't have to dig deep to see that.

Crowley was seventy-four when this was published, and it's obvious that he still had it. The man's a formidable talent, of that there is no doubt, and Dar Oakley is impressive as hell. That said...I did find that it was a little difficult to love this as I have a lot of his previous work. It's very cerebral, and it's difficult, I found, to appreciate the story on an emotional level. I think this may relate to the structure of the novel. It may be his first novel that doesn't make you work to get to the fantastical elements, but I'm not sure that's to its advantage: in Little, Big and the Ægypt novels, he put down a very meticulous infrastructure of realism on which to place the fantastical elements. You don't really have that here; it's fantastical from the start, and I think that may be a bit of a problem in terms of giving the reader a way to really dig into the world. I might say, perhaps, that it's a bit centerless.

Still. Glad its here, glad I got to read it. Here's hoping for more from Crowley in years to come.


Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

, which asks the question: what if Renaissance cosmology was actually true at the time; it just later became not-true and never-had-been-true? I want to reread it.

…if this concept grabs you and if you haven't done so already, you have to check out Unsong.

12:23 PM  

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