Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow is your fantasy must-read of the summer

Crop of cover from The Merciful Crow. (Image: Macmillan)
Crop of cover from The Merciful Crow. (Image: Macmillan) /

Margaret Owen’s The Merciful Crow is an immersive, gorgeous fantasy story that deserves to be the breakout YA hit of the summer.

Margaret Owen’s fantasy debut The Merciful Crow is probably the best YA novel you’ll pick up this summer. And maybe this whole year.

There, I said it.

Yes, to be fair, there are a ton of great stories headed your way during this season of peak summer reading time. (I’ve read a lot of them! They’re honestly great!) But there’s something special about Owen’s debut, which manages to tell an exciting, fast-paced story that not only includes memorable characters and themes, it feels like something we haven’t really read before.

In the kingdom of Sabor, people are divided into a hierarchical system of castes, named after various species of birds and ranked according to their abilities, or Birthrights. Phoenixes are all royals and they’re capable of manifesting and controlling fire. The warrior Hawks are skilled at Healing. Peacocks control illusions; while Swans are gifted in the arts of desire. The Crow caste ranks at the very bottom of things, serving as undertakers and mercy-killers to those infected by a terrible disease known as the Sinner’s Plague. They themselves have no magic, but a few can manipulate the teeth of the dead to use the abilities that those same people once used in life.

(Spoiler alert: This story is definitely a grim, dark tale. Prepare your emotions accordingly!)

The Crows are generally hated by all other castes, and must live an itinerant lifestyle shunned by the very people whose villages they show up to save and cleanse. And they spend their nights hiding from the Oleander Guild, a white-robed group of riders who see out and kill Crows once the sun sets.

For Fie, a sixteen-year-old chief in training, this is simply the life she knows. She loves her Crow family, and though she hates the fact that the Crows live such a persecuted lifestyle, she long ago accepted that this was the way things are. Until now. Maybe. After her squad of Crows helps Sabor’s crown prince and his Hawk bodyguard fake their own deaths in order to escape an assassination attempt by Jasmir’s evil stepmother, it looks as though things just might get better.

The Crows and the Phoenix prince strike a deal: If Fie and her family can help Jasimir get the throne, he’ll work to protect Crows once he’s king and end the persecution their entire caste faces on a daily basis.

So, that’s a lot for Fie and her Crows to play for, even though it’s clear that the young prince shares some of the worst prejudices about her kind. (Though, to be fair, he does learn how wrong he is over the course of the novel, in one of its more refreshing twists!)

It’s hard to get too specific about the Crows’ journey without delving into spoilers, but let’s just say the action is non-stop. I tore through this novel in the space of a weekend, and was honestly upset to see the last page.

Despite the fact that The Merciful Crow is hardly the only recent YA effort involving an itinerant band of mercy killers – See also: The Boneless Mercies – this novel nevertheless manages to feel like something completely fresh. Perhaps it’s the intricate and dedicated world-building that doesn’t spoon-feed explanations to readers. Instead, we’re all just expected to keep up, and glean information as its presented to us.

The world of Sabor is complicated and lush, and even the smallest side characters can often come back into play later on. The three leads – Fie, Prince Jasimir and his Hawk guard Tavin – are all distinct individuals with their own desires, flaws and agendas. Their relationships with one another grow and change organically over the course of the story, and involve everything from outright dislike to grudging respect to genuine affection. (Or love, in one instance.) All three have significant arcs, and their journeys of self-discovery are all compelling to witness, even when there are moments where it’s hard to like them. (Something that does happen with all three.)

Fie is a particularly strong heroine as well – loyal to those she cares about, indifferent to those she doesn’t, and thrumming with a near-constant rage at the world that has repeatedly treated her and her family like trash. Her determination and strength is admirable, as is her focus on doing the right thing – not for herself, but for her people who have been oppressed and mistreated for so long. She’s a fantastic heroine and one which I suspect many readers will quickly fall in love with.

The Merciful Crow is a fast-paced, exciting story full of interesting and diverse characters who inhabit a wonderfully rich, detailed world. There’s violence, darkness and betrayal here, to be sure. But there’s also love, grit and hope for a better tomorrow. It’s a story that definitley belongs on your TBR pile this summer – and it’s one you’ll be glad you read.

Next. John Green’s message is alive and well in the Looking for Alaska teaser. dark

The Merciful Crow is now available to purchase via your favorite retailer. And stay tuned to Culturess this week for an interview with its author, Margaret Owen!