John Crowley Returns with a Epic Tale from a Bird’s-Eye View

The stories I could tell you about crows. My college boyfriend was obsessed with them. He would do wonderfully dorky things like check DNR surveys of crows out of the library. These reports are way cooler than you’d expect—even the dry scientific facts of what they ate were glossed with the odd antics and anecdotes of the survey’s subjects. They are fascinating birds: garrulous, social, intelligent, creative. The eponymous crow narrator from Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, the newest novel by John Crowley (revered for Little, Big), certainly exemplifies these characteristics. Found one day after being chased by other birds, Dar Oakley is taken in by a human man and nursed back to health. For the man’s kindness, Dar Oakley teaches him the language of crows, and tells the long story of his life.

The stories of crows aren’t all sweetness and light; they’ve long been associated with death and carrion. Once a local flock decided to murder all the English sparrows in my yard, and then proceeded to leave their headless bodies on my back porch for a week. (The symbolism there freaked me out, but good.) A sense of death hangs over everything in Ka, even as its crow protagonist seems to live an eternal life. Meanwhile, the human who saved Dar Oakley is “mortally sick in more than body”; he’s retreated to the countryside after the recent death of his wife, living out his last days in a world stuck somewhere mid-apocalypse, a near future of ravaging disease and climactic upheaval.

Against this ongoing cataclysm, Dar Oakley’s stories feel both lively and ominous. They start somewhere in Europe, before the conquest of the Romans. He’s given a name by a young girl who sees him sitting in an oak tree—Oakley—and in turn, he names the land of humans, Ymr. This is the noise of human speech as heard by crows; they call their own land Ka, after their own tongue. The novel is swatched in mythology and the epic; Dar Oakley’s name for the human world reminded me of Ymir, the unformed cosmic body from whence the Norse gods sprung. Indeed, the idea from Norse mythology of discreet but intermingled worlds isn’t out of place here: Dar Oakley travels between the human world and that of the crows, and to the land of the dead, over and over across his thousand-year narrative.

When we talk about epic fantasy, we’re usually referring the sheer scale of the thing: political dynasties, the great tide of history, a clash of kings. Ka certainly contains some of these elements—the broad sweep of time, the bird’s eye view of humanity (if you’ll forgive the metaphor). But something about its manner of telling invokes an older meaning of “epic:” poems sung around the hearth, meant to delight and amaze, and keep the darkness at bay. A section in the prologue reads to me like the invocation of the muse, which almost always opens the action in traditional epic poetry.

While Dar Oakley speaks in the singsong manner of mythos twisted with something much more sly, his human interlocutor does so in long, almost run-on sentences, full of clauses and digressions, lending a feel of natural speech to the telling. Eventually, its hard to tell whether or not Dar Oakley is actually a product of the man’s ailing imagination—a prognostication and memory of the long life of humanity, told in a dying place by a dying man.

You can tell your fortunes on crows. When my kids were young, I taught them the old rhyme for counting crows: one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy. We’d count the crows in the alley and tell our futures: wishes and kisses and secrets, all borne on a crow’s wing. This novel contains all of it.

Ten for a bird; you must not miss.

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is available now.

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