The Crows are undertakers and mercy-killers, paid in the teeth of the dead. The Merciful Crow, Margaret Owen’s deliciously dark new YA fantasy, follows Fie, a member of the reviled Crow caste, as she and her band protect a prince from his political enemies. We talked to Owen about inclusion, the linguistic intricacies of her world and why she’s drawn to birds.
The Merciful Crow will be published just two months after the conclusion of HBO’s blockbuster television series “Game of Thrones.” How does the landscape of fantasy tales—including contemporary writings and folk and fairy tales—set the stage for your own work?
It means George R.R. Martin’s on notice. (That’s a joke, folks. The only thing I’m putting on notice is a box of Girl Scout cookies.) I grew up among fantasy, folklore and fairytale, but I noticed quickly that my favorite stories were about girls seizing their own destinies . . . and that there weren’t as many of them as I wished. That’s nothing new; we’re all quite familiar with the damsel in distress. I just preferred other stories.
The fantasy landscape itself is, to me, immeasurable. Its limits are truly only those of our own imaginations. There have been plenty of works that, to me, showed the author’s creativity shattered the barriers of biases. There have been far too many that haven’t, sometimes in the name of “realism” or “historical accuracy,” while miraculously hand-waving the historical accuracy of, say, manticores.
The upshot is that they’ve left the bar pretty low for world-building. Do something straightforward like make the highest-ranked military officer in your kingdom a woman, or the heir to the throne openly gay without issue, and apparently your world-building is “fresh” and “innovative.” I’d like to nudge that bar higher.
One of the first aspects I noticed in your book was its use of archaic language—words like aught (instead of nothing) and betwixt (instead of between) catch the reader’s eye. Why did you decide to use these unusual words instead of their more common versions?
I wrote a rather needlessly long Twitter thread about this, so I’ll try to condense it here for decency’s sake. The book is narrated through Fie, who starts the story illiterate, like most of her caste. They spend most of their lives in conditions that aren’t friendly to reading materials, and they have a limited set of secret ideograms to communicate to other members of the caste. As such, I wanted her caste to have a dialect that separated them from other, literate castes. It also would have been fairly insulting to base it on a real-world dialect.
My solution had three parts. First was a bit of linguistic sleight of hand: Most words in the English language come from either a Germanic root or a Latinate root. We tend to think of the Latinate version as more academic and official—for example, larceny (Latinate) versus theft (Germanic), or deity (L) versus god (G.) Unless it was terribly awkward, Fie defaulted to words with Germanic roots, not just in dialogue but the narrative itself. As she grows over the course of the book, her vocabulary also expands to include Latinate words.
The second and third parts were relatively less complicated. Fie avoids adverbs and will fall back on adjectives instead, which makes her voice sound stilted and awkward. This reflects her own discomfort with her reality, but as she’s forced to come to terms with one of her greatest fears, adverbs make their way into her narration to show her adjusting. And the third, as you noted, was a light dusting of archaic language. It’s like the rug in The Big Lebowski! It just ties the voice together.
The social castes in Fie’s world are all named after birds: Crows, Hawks, Phoenixes and others. What is it about birds that speaks to you?
I’d been drawn to crows in particular for a while. There was a viral story about a girl in Seattle, where I live, who fed the crows, only for them to start bringing her presents. They’re infamously smart, fiercely protective of their own and full of personality and swagger. The more cynical tail end of that story, though, is that the girl’s neighbors sued her family to make her stop. One even hung a dead crow off his third-floor balcony, which is surely not the behavior of a serial killer whatsoever! I’d like to think you see both aspects of that story at play in The Merciful Crow.
Honestly, the rest of the castes could have wound up as anything, but when I thought of what the royal caste would be, phoenixes seemed like the perfect opposite of crows: mythical instead of mundane, associated with rebirth instead of death, treasured instead of chased off. Once I had those two at each end of the caste spectrum, I knew the rest of the castes would have to be birds too.
Fie takes for granted that those who die of plague are sinners. Different societies frame connections between sickness and behavior in different ways; in our society, the idea that illness is a punishment alternates with the idea that disease is no one’s fault. What are your thoughts on this complicated balance?
Complicated is absolutely the right word for it. My family’s oldest tradition is its autoimmune disorders, so I wanted to draw a clear line in this world between getting sick in the everyday way and the Sinner’s Plague, which seems to operate as a somewhat gruesome form of divine intervention.
I think the book reflects a lot of the formative conversations taking place when I was a teen. Growing up in Oregon, physician-assisted suicide was debated and passed when I was in grade school and generally seen as a positive thing, though critics raised concerns that it could lead to involuntary or coerced euthanasia. Just over a decade later, the case of Terri Schiavo came to a head the year I graduated high school. My mother and stepfather also worked as public defenders, meaning they upheld the constitutional right to legal representation for anyone charged of a crime, no matter how terrible.
In the story, the Sinner’s Plague has two elements to it that are, to me, equally important. The first is that, as far as the characters understand the disease, it only initially strikes people beyond redemption. There’s comfort in the idea that this terrible thing only happens to terrible people; there’s also tension in the idea that a group of people are morally obligated to deliver this terrible person from their suffering, even at their own peril.
The second element is framed as more of a safety concern but is also a moral obligation to me, albeit one handed to the community. The plague only spreads once the victim has died, but it will spread quickly. Abandoning the victim to prolonged suffering, or denying their body funeral rites, will only punish the community. It’s a way of enforcing a measure of mercy and dignity to fellow humans; it says that to the divine, how you treat the worst of people still matters.
Gender identity and sexuality form an important, if often subtle, part of your story. The main characters represent a spectrum of sexual orientations, and small references to queer identities abound: A male warrior is casually referred to as having a loving husband, and one of Fie’s fellow Crows uses the pronoun “they.” Why did you decide to include such a variety of identities and relationships?
I’m going to borrow my line from another Q&A that asked a similar question—inclusion is a choice, but so is exclusion. The identities that I include aren’t new, only some of the terminology, and the accessibility of information to the average layperson. The funny thing is, the most persistent objection to inclusion is that it’s not realistic to have, say, more than one LGBTQ+ character. (It’s also the clearest way to tell the objector wasn’t a theater kid.) My reality, and many people’s reality, includes people of many genders and identities.
Moreover, it’s a craft question to me. If I set up a world in which occupations and leadership roles are not limited by gender, what use would this society have for enforcing a patriarchy? A binary concept of gender? A heteronormative tradition for romance? It doesn’t make sense to impose those limitations.
Two words: Why teeth?
Practicality. I knew I wanted a magic system that was a touch off-putting, and calling the scraps of a dead person’s magic from their bones was right on the money. However, it had its limits—they’d have to be removed from corpses, yikes, and apart from phalanges and metacarpals, they’d largely be unwieldy. Teeth were a good compromise: still deeply unsettling, but travel-sized! Not to mention more accessible and easy for a family to collect in case they needed to pay Crows someday.
In addition to writing, you’re also a digital artist. The illustrations you created for The Merciful Crow look amazing. How do you create your art? How do you conceptualize the connections between your art and your writing?
Thank you so much! I actually tend to go about creating art and working on stories much the same way: start with a couple conceptual thumbnail concepts, pick a direction, then roughly outline the full-size project and develop the detail from there. I also tend to do concept art to help nail down the overall feeling of settings, characters, cultural elements, etc. That helps me work through practical considerations (such as “how does an impoverished group like the Crows have access to the amount of cloth needed for their signature black robes?”) and establish coherent visual identities, which I can then translate on the page.
The flip side is that I can over-rely on visuals. I think I committed a grave faux-pas for YA by never describing how the love interest smelled. Considering they spend most of the story on the road, though, the answer would not be pleasant.
On your blog, you write that you’ve “accumulated various writing knowledge like a decorator crab.” If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
There’s a lot of fantastic advice out there, about resilience and having a thick skin and doing your research, so I’m going to assume aspiring writers already know all that. (If you don’t, here’s the short version: 1) don’t give up, 2) don’t let it get you down, and 3) Google is free and it’s your friend.)
My best advice as a writer is: Your most precious resources are your time and your enthusiasm. No one ever has the time to write a book; you have to make it a priority, and you can’t (and shouldn’t!) do that all the time. The key to that, though, is enthusiasm. You have to be so in love with your story that you’ll make time for it. You have to be so in love with it, you want it to be the best version possible. Be enthusiastic about what you write, and that joy will saturate the page, but more importantly: It’ll get done.
Will there be a follow-up to The Merciful Crow? What other projects are next for you?
I’m working on the sequel right now! After that, it’s anyone’s guess. I’ve got a frankly unseemly number of stories yanking their chains, some in the same world as The Merciful Crow, others in new universes entirely. It’ll come down to which makes sense to let loose in the market first, and I can’t wait to find out.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Merciful Crow.