Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, by John Crowley – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, by John Crowley. Illustrated by Melody Newcomb.
NYC, Saga Press, October 2017, hardcover $28.99 ([4 +] 442 [+2] pages), trade paperback $16.99, Kindle $7.99.
This is the story of Dar Oakley, “the first Crow in all of history with a name of his own” (blurb). It is told by a nameless human narrator in the time of death, when both humans and Crows are all dying. The narrator’s wife Debra has just died, and he is sick, delirious, and alone in his country house. He finds a sick, obviously dying Crow in his back yard:
“I approached it warily – those bills are sharp – and heard from several directions the calling of other Crows, so close I thought I ought to be able to see them, though I couldn’t. The sick one made no attempt to get away, and didn’t even watch me come closer. Or so I thought then. It would take me a long time to understand that Crows, courting or walking a field together, never turning heir heads to observe one another, aren’t indifferent to or unconscious of their neighbors. No. A Crow’s eyes are set far apart, far enough apart that he can best see very close things out of only one eye. Crows beside one another are, in their way, face-to-face.” (p. 4)
The narrator brings the dying Crow into his house on a shovel. But the Crow does not die, nor does the narrator. During the next two years the Crow and the narrator, always alone, both get well, and the narrator learn to talk to the Crow. The Crow, Dar Oakley, tells him his life story. All two thousand years of it:
“He tells me now that he can’t remember much at all of the worst days of his sickness, and the story that I tell – the backyard, the Crows, the shovel, the bathtub – will have to do for him as well as for me. The one thing he knew and I didn’t was that he wouldn’t die. That would take more than a bout of West Nile, if that’s what this was.” (p. 6)
Ka pages 13 to 442 are Dar Oakley’s story. It starts long before the days of Julius Caesar, in the lands of the Celts in northern Europe. One day the Crow who would become Dar Oakley was boasting to a wandering Vagrant Crow:
“‘You’d probably not believe me,’ Dar Oakley said one day to the Vagrant, ‘if I told you how far from here I’ve been.’
The Vagrant, poking in the mud of a pond’s edge for larvae or Frog’s eggs or whatever else might turn up, said nothing in response.
‘I’ve been where there are no Crows at all,’ Dar Oakley said. ‘None anywhere but me.’
‘No such place,’ the Vagrant averred,
‘Oh no?’ said Dar Oakley. ‘Go as far as I have,’
The Vagrant stopped his hunting. ‘Listen, fledgling.’ He said, in a low but not soft voice. ‘Long ago I left the places where I grew up. I was run out. Never mind why. Always between then and now I’ve been on the wing.’” (p. 17)
Dar Oakley flies far to prove the Vagrant wrong, but he never does. He returns to the home of his parents and siblings and his murder, where they watch the two-legs and their rolling carts come into their woods and settle. But there is always something a bit different, more adventurous about him; a willingness to go farther than the others.
One day Dar Oakley visits a farther land yet (the human Underworld). When he returns home, he is immortal.
Centuries pass. The Celts become Irish monks, and Dar Oakley travels with them to the unknown lands of the West.
More time passes. Eventually Dar Oakley’s and the narrator’s lives become intertwined.
Ymr is the human world, and Ka is the land of the Crows. Of all animals, actually, but Dar Oakley is corvid-centric. Ka has other talking animals among Dar Oakley’s adventures:
“The Owl looked around itself with its mobile head as though for a definite answer to give. Then it said, This is possible.
Yes, Dar Oakley cried. I knew it must be, and it is!
It is possible, the Owl went on. Because you have been a friend to Death, I will tell you how.
Yes, Dar Oakley said. (Had he been a friend to Death? Where, in what land, among whom?)
To do it, the Owl said, you must do exactly as I say.
I will.” (p. 327)
“The two Ravens turned to one another with a look that seemed to say, Has a question been put to us? Then one bent forward a little toward Dar Oakley. ‘Of Crows,’ it said, ‘there are gnone.’
‘Where have they gone? There are Crows everywhere.’
‘As you say,’ said the other Raven. ‘But gnot here.’” (p. 379)
“Night should have fallen by then but somehow hadn’t, as though the sun hovered just below the horizon and sank no farther. Dar Oakley followed the beast through the wilderness of the riverbank ruins, they passed among People unnoticed, the People seeming dim and hardly present. It was light enough to fly, and sometimes he flew, unable otherwise to keep up with Coyote’s ceaseless trotting.
He wasn’t from these places, he told Dar Oakley; not city-bred, no: he was unwelcome in the city, and if he was caught by the People, he’d be got rid of without hesitation.
Of course they have to catch me before the trial can start, he said, if there’s a trial, which there wouldn’t be, because they don’t catch me, so on we go.” (pgs. 420-421)
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (cover by Sonia Chaghatzbanian) is not as much a furry novel as a mainstream talking-animal fable. John Crowley is a World Fantasy Award-winning author who was originally classified as a science-fiction writer – see his 1976 s-f novel Beasts with bioengineered leos (lion-men) and one fox-man – but today is considered to write in general fiction, science-fiction, fantasy, and experimental writing.
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