No Rest for This Teenage Mercy Killer

If a first impression is a lasting impression, then the brutal opening line of Margaret Owen’s THE MERCIFUL CROW (Holt, 374 pp., $18.99; ages 14 and up) is one you won’t likely forget: “Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.”

So begins the grim and exciting tale of a usurped prince, a deadly plague and magic harnessed by collecting human teeth.

“The Merciful Crow,” the first book in a duology, follows Fie, a girl living in the plague-ravaged land of Sabor. A strict caste system segregates Sabor, and Fie sits at the bottom: She’s a Crow, a member of a group of mercy killers duty bound to put to rest anyone unlucky enough to contract the plague.

It’s a thankless job made all the more challenging by the fact that the other castes reject, and in some cases hunt, Crows. “Most of Sabor believed Crows to be dead sinners reborn, sentenced to repent through a hard life of containing the plague.”

When her band of Crows is called to the royal palace, Fie thinks she is there to retrieve the bodies of the land’s distinguished aristocracy. Instead, she finds herself drafted into a plot to smuggle the young prince, Jasimir, and his loyal guard to safety before the prince is killed by the evil Queen Rhusana in her attempt to seize the throne.

Fie is not powerless in this quest, though. Each caste has a birthright, a special ability that passes from generation to generation, which can be performed by its resident witches.

Vultures can track, making them natural-born hunters. Gulls can summon wind, Cranes can compel others to tell the truth, and so on. And Crows? They have no natural birthright of their own but can use the powers of another caste if they have the bones or teeth of a member.

Fie is also one of those rare, magic-wielding witches, training to one day become the chief of her own band of Crows. And she’s not afraid to tap into her fledgling power. “It wasn’t that she wanted to burn the world down, no. She just wanted the world to know that she could,” Fie reflects. It’s with this magic that Fie sets out to save the prince, and, if she plays her cards right, change the fate of Crows forever.

If there is one breakout star of “The Merciful Crow,” it’s the rich and immersive world that Owen has created. The machinations of Sabor are complex and engrossing, and one gets the sense that Fie’s journey is only one small peek into a much larger, expansive lore that Owen has created. In fact, her world-building is so captivating, readers will likely yearn for an encyclopedia while reading, just to understand every nook and cranny of Sabor and its magic.

And in addition to the alluring web of magic in the story, through the plight of the Crows, “The Merciful Crow” offers a sharp exploration of privilege and discrimination that makes this fantastical land feel all too real and familiar.

At times, though, the way Owen pulls readers through her tale can be awkward, especially in the beginning, as we are introduced to the intricate social systems and magic that make up the novel. Who has what abilities? What’s the deal with witches, and why? Why is the caste system avian themed? What exactly is the queen orchestrating, and how?

All these questions entice the reader toward the mythology of “The Merciful Crow,” but the way they crop up slows down an otherwise fast-paced novel, and they might have been squared away with more precise storytelling.

Eventually, though, those questions fall by the wayside, as readers sink into a ferocious, exhilarating narrative. Full of romance and suspense, this is a tale that will leave readers hungry for the next book in the series.

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