If you like your Sherlock Holmes retellings with a touch of the paranormal, The Angel of the Crows is a solid addition to the genre!
Book: The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison
Read before: No
Publication date: 23rd June 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Rebellion Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death and murder; depiction of injuries including stitches; period-accurate racism (condemned by main characters).
I was SO excited for this book when it was announced. I’m a lifelong fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’ve read and watched so many adaptations, pastiches, and unofficial sequels. When I saw that Katherine Addison, author of one of my all-time favourite political fantasies, was tackling the genre, I was over the moon! The Angel of the Crows was born from a fanfic of the show Sherlock, itself an adaptation of the classic Holmes stories, where our Holmes character, Crow, is an angel and our Watson character, Doyle, is not entirely human after a brush with the undead in Afghanistan. Knowing how inventive and enjoyable fanfic often is (I read a lot, though I haven’t been in the Sherlock fandom since school!), and how intricate Addison’s intrigue can be, I was really keen to see what fresh take this book was going to have. But although it’s a really good, solid, paranormal Holmes-alike, it does absolutely nothing new.
The thing is, all the marketing for this book focuses on how completely unique it is. The blurb literally starts: “This is not the story you think it is. These are not the characters you think they are. This is not the book you are expecting.” All the author comments talk about how it’s “unexpected” and “unlike anything else” And given how much I adored The Goblin Emperor for its ingenuity and original twists on tropes, I had extremely high hopes for this to be a take on Sherlock Holmes like I’d never read before. And… if you go in expecting that, you’re going to be severely disappointed.
Holmes and/or Watson are some kind of paranormal: check. The cases they take turn out to be tinged with magic and the supernatural: check. They confront the biggest Victorian criminal of all, Jack the Ripper: check, check, check. I’ve read these variations so many times – I’m genuinely left wondering if every author who blurbed it has read it in a total vacuum where there isn’t already an enormous industry of paranormal Holmes writing! Even the cases are straightforward retellings of the classic ones with supernatural elements inserted, rather than new cases either invented wholesale or drawn from the wealth of offhand comments made in the original canon. I’m just a little baffled as to how this got picked up and published when it’s such an average take on the genre!
For all it fell flat for me due to my expectations, I absolutely don’t want to give the impression that this is a bad book. It’s well-written in a style that is very readable, but still feels appropriate to the historical setting, and the new solutions to the cases are fun enough. I personally really dislike fictional takes on Jack the Ripper (I find it disturbing to try to derive entertainment from serial killers), so that part wasn’t for me, but it is a staple of Victorian crime fiction and Holmes fanon so I can forgive its inclusion here. I enjoyed some of the aspects of the worldbuilding – there are tantalising glimpses of the wider supernatural world outside of 221B, such as the official registration of paranormal beings, Doyle’s war service fighting Fallen angels, and the interesting take on vampire culture, but I thought the tight adherence to the Holmes canon meant we didn’t get to see enough of this cool worldbuilding. Crow is an angel unique among his kind; normally they are fixed to one location, whereas he is free to move about London, and he is outcast from their hierarchy in a way that ought to have spelled his doom, but didn’t. This raises so many questions that would have been fascinating to find out the answers to, but the book spends very little time on them, and I was ultimately left feeling like none of the interesting aspects were actually explored. Again, that doesn’t mean it was bad, I just wanted so much more from it! It could have been so exciting and compelling, but instead the best I can say about it is that it’s a good basic Holmes retelling.
Reading this was an object lesson for me in not getting too hyped up for a book. If you enjoy the genre of Sherlock Holmes variations, or indeed if you’ve never read one before, then this is an entertaining paranormal version. But for something that truly feels like an innovative treat for Holmes fans, I’d be way more likely to recommend Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon (review here). Three and a half out of five cats.