Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, by John Crowley
a review by Rich Horton
Christie Yant opens her review of Ka in the April Lightspeed by noting, with some wonder, that the Nebula shortlist does not include this novel. That is certainly a thought that occurred to me. In the long run, or even mostly the short run, awards don't matter that much. But there are some books which confer more honor on the awards for which they are nominated than the awards confer on them. An award like the Nebula is diminished when it fails to notice a book as good, as important, as well-written, and as wise as Ka. This is not to say that any of the novels on the shortlist are bad -- in fact, it's my impression that that the list (fully seven novels deep!) is fairly strong overall. Three of its members joined Ka and John Kessel's The Moon and the Other on my Hugo nomination list. (Those were Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory; The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter, by Theodora Goss; and Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. And one that I haven't yet read, The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin, would very likely have had a chance to supplant one of those three.)
Doubtless there are reasons -- the most likely is that Ka, a long novel released late in the year, was not read by enough Nebula nominators. Be that as it may -- it is a remarkable work, and the notion that it was regarded as not one of the seven best SF/Fantasy novels of 2017 by the members of SFWA is, at least, curious. I don't want to sound so grumpy -- indeed, as I said, the novels chosen for the shortlist are pretty fine. (And, indeed, it's hard for anyone to read everything good published in a given year.) But there is pretty fine and there is remarkable.
So, what of the novel itself? Ka is told, in essence, in two voices. (And Crowley, like most great writers, is exquisitely in control of narrative voice.) The true narrator is an elderly man, some time in the fairly near future, in an environmentally collapsing world, somewhere in the Northeast of the US. His wife died some years before, and he is acutely aware that he is dying. (Perhaps the central concern of this novel is death -- the death of people, the death of crows, the death of civilizations, perhaps the death of the human world. The other central concern is story -- probably the most central concern of Crowley's entire oeuvre.)
The narrator finds a very sick crow in his yard, and nurses him back to health, and somehow learns to speak with the crow. He learns his name -- Dar Oakley -- and then learns his very long story. Dar Oakley is an unusual crow, obviously. He is the first crow to take a name, the first to learn to communicate with humans. The first human he has a relationship with is a girl named Fox Cap, in what seems a Neolithic culture somewhere in Europe. Fox Cap is close to the tribe's shaman, and indeed become shaman eventually. As a result of his association with her, and other humans, he learns of the human tendency to war, and of the benefit thereby accruing to crows -- carrion, dead humans. So indeed the novel is throughout involved with death, and more intimately as well, as Fox Cap and Dar Oakley journey to the land of the dead (or something like that) to steal "the most precious thing", the secret of immortality. Only Dar Oakley keeps it for himself.
And so he is reborn again and again, and we hear his story as he leaps forward in time -- to a monk in the middle ages; then across the ocean to the New World, and to a Native American tribe, and one man in particular, taken captive by one tribe (war again) and adopted into them. Then forward to the Civil War, and its aftermath, and a Spiritualist woman, and then her son, who learns to hate crows, and then finally to the time of the narrator, in our near future. Throughout we learn of war, and death, and what may come after death. Dar Oakley makes several journeys to various versions of the land of the dead. He also has numerous crow families, and we meet some of his fellow crows and his mates, particuarly one called Kits, who it turns out is a special crow as well.
All this is fascinating, always interesting, though the book lacks a conventional plot. The characters are involving, however: Each of these People characters is strange, obsessed, interesting; and the Crows are true Characters as well. The themes, of story and of death, grow and grow in layers as the book continues. By the end it Ka extraordinarily moving, mysterious and wise. And truly lovely. And witty and snarky (in a corvine sort of way) when needed. Crowley is one of the best writers of prose we have. One example from right at the end:
"Only the living can travel there from here, cross the river, see and speak to those they know or know of, take away its treasures. The living create the Land of Death and its inhabitants by going there, and returning with a tale. But dead People can't be there, can't go there or anywhere: they're dead."