Review posted January 18, 2024.
Macmillan Young Listeners, 2019. 12 hours, 58 minutes.
Review written January 2, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#7 Teen Speculative Fiction
I've become a big fan of Margaret Owen's work after Little Thieves was my favorite book read in 2022, and the sequel Painted Devils was one of my favorites in 2023. So I was happy to find her debut book available as an eaudiobook on Libby.
As in the other series, The Merciful Crow features a girl who's a scrappy underdog. In this case, she's part of the caste of Crows -- the very lowest and most despised caste in the kingdom of Sabor. There are twelve castes altogether, all named after birds. Each caste has a certain number of witches with an inherited magic for their caste. The ruling family of Phoenixes, for example, can manipulate fire.
Crows don't have a specific magic of their own -- but if they have teeth from someone of another caste, living or dead, they can manipulate that person's magic. And fortunately, the Crows have access to teeth, because they are the caste that deals with bodies. Crows are immune to the Sinner's Plague - so when a village lights a Plague Beacon, Crows go in and give the person with the plague a merciful killing, then remove the bodies from the village and burn them.
Fie is the daughter of a chief of the Crows, and she's training to use the magic of teeth and become a chief herself. As the book opens, they've been called to the palace for the first time in 500 years. Fie's Pa goes in and brings out the shrouded bodies of Prince Jasimir and his bodyguard Tavin. And then they negotiate for payment.
But after they get out of the royal city, it turns out the prince and his companion aren't dead. It was a ruse to escape from the Queen, who is trying to kill him. Now he wants to travel with the Crows to get to his allies before he shows up as miraculously recovered from the Plague.
But things begin to go wrong. Due to treachery, after their next stop, Fie ends up traveling with the prince and Tavin on her own, with her whole family held hostage. She has a string of teeth, including Phoenix teeth, she has a charge from her father, and she has determination to look after her own. She'll help the prince to save her family.
The journey is long and difficult, and there are twists and turns all along the way. As they travel, the prince and Tavin are surprised to learn how badly Crows are treated. Fie doesn't know if she can ever trust the prince to treat them like people, as he's promised. On the other hand, the Queen intends to allow vigilantes to attack Crows in broad daylight instead of only at night like they do now.
Using caste in a fantasy world was an interesting way to talk about racism in the real world and treating all people as people of worth. This book held magic, romance, adventure, and the story of a girl learning to be a leader.
Research shows this is the first of a duology (but it does stop at a good stopping place), so the advantage of reading it years after publication is that I can start the next book right away.