In Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (Saga Press, 2017), John Crowley provides an account of human history through the eyes of a crow.
The story takes flight in the Iron Age, when the eponymous main character, Dar Oakley, is the first of his kind to encounter humans. He finds these upright beings (who hail from a realm that Dar Oakley calls “Ymr” in crow-speak) both fascinating and baffling.
Witnessing a battle for the first time, Dar Oakley can’t make sense of it. In his experience, animals kill for food, but absurdly people don’t eat their opponents. Rather, they defile and plunder their enemies’ bodies while tenderly attending to the corpses of their compatriots. (Any unburied remains are, of course, a windfall to hungry crows, who happily peck the bones clean).
I was feeling intimidated before I got Crowley on the line. His reputation as a “writer’s writer” had me worried that my questions would fall flat or that I’d missed the point of the book. It didn’t help that the esteemed critic Harold Bloom has cited Crowley’d 1981 novel Little, Big as one of the best books of all time, calling it “an imaginative masterpiece, in which the sense of wonder never subsides.”
It turned out Crowley was as sweet as could be and a delight to talk to. And who wouldn’t be charmed by someone who professes a life-long fascination with crows? “I think they are amazing beings,” he says, “and they become more interesting the more you learn about them.”
Even though Dark Oakley is a crow, I found him highly relatable. Maybe this is because I’ve always been (or at least felt like) an outsider, and Dar Oakley is nothing if not an outsider, observing humans from the distance of the air or the centuries, even as he makes a few human friends along the way.
Crowley calls the novel “a long meditation on death,” which makes the story sound more morose than it is. Dar Oakley is actually a charming companion, his wonder over human ideas about the soul and afterlife leavened by his kindness and humor. He makes several trips to the underworld (which changes over time to reflect evolving human beliefs) and even assists a clairvoyant after the American Civil War.
Dar Oakley’s long-life makes him a consummate storyteller, and towards the end of the book, his exploits—like his introducing the concept of names to crow culture in the pre-Christian era—are re-told as myth among modern crows. Thus Ka is also a novel about the power of words.
“If you’ve written 13 or 14 novels like I have, you cannot forget almost in every sentence that you are in a story,” Crowley says. And a good writer plays with that idea, leaving the reader poised between a belief that, on the one hand, what they’re reading “is just a story” and, on the other, that it’s reality.
Crowley, 75, has earned both the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
“If you want to write a realistic novel it ought to contain a little bit of the fantastical and the spiritual and the impossible because life does,” Crowley says. “I don’t particularly care for books that don’t have something of that in it.”
Personally, I couldn’t agree with him more.