John Crowley has long been one of the most contentious names in fantasy literature. While lauded by critics and erudite readers, his popularity remains minimal in the mainstream. And the reasons are clear. Steering wide of melodrama, stereotype, contrived plots, and other familiar elements of popular fiction, Crowley has always utilized distant prose to grapple with abstract albeit human ideas. Little, Big, Aegypt, and other such novels utilized elements of genre (faires, alternate history, etc.) in setting and plot, but focused their content on the value of stories, memory, and other such broad themes. In 2017, however, Crowley set out to write a more accessible novel, Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr being the result. Thankfully, Crowley did not stray far from his roots.
Ka is foremost a frame story—or at least a story that begins in media res. An unnamed elderly man finds Dar Oakley the crow in his backyard one day. In poor health, the bird starts to relate his life story to the old man. And it’s an amazing story. Dar Oakley, or as he was originally known, Dar Oak of Lee, was born into a murder in the woods of primeval Wales. Befriending a young native girl named Fox Cap, he watches as the girl grows up to become something of a shaman among her people. Deciding to embark on a trip to the underworld to bring back a cauldron that will cure the mortality—wars, illness, old age—plaguing her people, Fox Cap asks Dar Oakley if he wants to go with her, and he agrees. But things underground don’t go as planned. Emerging back into the world, Dar Oakley finds himself caught in a loop of life and death that persists through the centuries, and, interestingly enough, at a prime viewing spot to see evolution of mankind through the branches below him.
I have read a few reviews of Ka since finishing the novel, and most seem to center on the idea of the novel as a meditation on story and storytelling. Inarguably these are key parts of the narrative, and something that Crowley would even seem to directly highlight on occasion. But I would argue they are only a portion of theme. Crows the symbol of death for some cultures or people, or at least associated with death bz Westerners, it’s only natural that mortality is also a key theme. Crows eating meat regardless human or animal, each battle and war among humans provides the crows a steady diet. Add to this what Dar Oakley’s witnesses in his own cycle of life and death, and an interesting perspective on human mortality emerges. Despite the centuries that pass, however, it should be stated Dar Oakley is never presented as a wise old seer of birds, gravity in every word he utters. There is no such commentary, rather, Crowley keeps his black bird quotidian (if such a word can be applied to crows) in that Dar maintains a simple outlook for life; find food, maintain safe shelter, find a mate, interact a bit with others, and that’s it (a remarkable analog to the majority of human lives). By doing so, Crowley allows the reader to draw their own conclusions on the human penchant for killing and the meaning of the life cycle we each are given.
And I believe there is still one more key theme to Ka. Derived from the subtitle (Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr), it should be noted ‘Ka’ is the world which crows come from and ‘Ymr’ is the crow word for Earth. Thus it should be no surprise the novel’s prologue features a hill of motley humans scavenging a landfill, even as the elderly man from the frame narrative is dying of an unnamed ailment. Moreover, Fox Cap’s primeval world, though as innocent as it is, is never presented as idyllic. And certainly the American Civil War and the onset of the industrial age, which go ont o form important chapters in the narrative, are likewise far from ideal. More than just killers, humans achieve are presented in the wider view as destroyers, even to the point of the world they occupy. The old man’s ragged situation framing the novel thus forms an open-close biological/environmental/human/whatever you want to call it message for the novel as a whole.
John Crowley is not a writer for everyone. Most of his most critically acclaimed work somewhat distant and obfuscated, a good deal of mainstream readers bounce due to the relative lack of familiar plot dichotomies and cookie-cutter characters. In this regard, Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr is Crowley’s most accessible novel in many years. Surprising even me, the novel has a number of overtly fantastical moments that provide color to Dar Oakley’s corvid world as well as lighten and diversify the evolution of events. Crowley’s prose remains somewhat remote, but in terms of the story attempting to be told, is fully complementary. In short, it’s possible Ka could be read and enjoyed by readers who have disliked Crowley’s middle period of novels (Little Big, Aegypt, etc.) but were more akin to his earlier novels, like Engine Summer, The Deep, etc. Ka is not Watership Down starring crows, but is just as fascinating for thematic depth. Dar Oakley will live on in memory after the last page is turned.