Katherine Addison: The Angel of the Crows

Addison, Katherine (2020), The Angel of the Crows, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8740-0

Fanfiction has had an interesting few decades. Some of the biggest bestsellers of the past years are rewritten pieces of fanfiction, most famously 50 Shades of Gray, and the Throne of Glass books by Sarah J. Maas, the first chapters of which turned up on fanfiction.net. There are also a ton of writers of speculative fiction who started writing fanfiction, and shifted into original writing after learning the craft while dealing with other authors’ material.  So there’s a lot of examples of fanfiction in published literature – and yet still The Angel of the Crows is a book unlike any other I have read. Addison offers us a novel set in 19th century England, with a character named Doyle (as in Conan Arthur), and an obvious Sherlock stand in character. There are police inspectors named Gregson, Lestrade and Bradstreet, as well as a character named Moriarty. Not only is the book not disguising its debt to Sherlock Holmes, it also offers the usual fanfic twists on the original material: there’s a gender swapped character (who may be trans), there are vampires, werewolves etc. There are inserts from history – most importantly, the throughline of the book is the hunt for Jack the Ripper. The most important change, however, is the character of Sherlock – we are given an Angel. Crow, the Angel of London.

Indeed, Addison explains this in a note at the back of the book.

As a reader and sometime writer of fanfic, this was fascinating. “For those of you who do not know, there is a thing called fanfiction, wherein fans of a particular book or TV show or movie write stories about the characters. Fanfiction, as an umbrella term, covers a vast variety of genres and subgenres. One of those subgenres is something called wingfic, wherein a character or characters have wings. The Angel of the Crows began as a Sherlock wingfic.

If you search for the tag on AO3, you’ll find that they are overwhelmingly queer – and certainly offer complex sexual or ace relationship dynamics. And while there is some allusion to queerness in “The Angel of the Crows” – Addison never commits entirely, and it feels a bit off. That said, this has all the hallmarks of fanfiction, it is fanfiction for better or worse. In fact, that is the book’s biggest problem. It is impossible, without spoiling it, to list all the incredible ideas and inventions Addison has stuffed into this book. Just the structure of angels, hell hounds, it’s full of ideas and mythology.

But underneath all this is a retelling of Sherlock Holmes stories. It begins with “A Study in Scarlet,” it ends with “The Hounds of the Baskervilles” and fills the rest with stories “The Sign of the Four” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” Addison also draws historical murders into the Sherlockian tales, from Jack the Ripper to the Ratcliff Highway murders. There is a lengthy note about her research and recommended books at the end. The biggest downside to all this is that, like much fanfic, she is too excited by the changes to characters and the new dynamics this opens to do anything to the plot itself. Once you see what Holmes story you entered, you will be able to follow it entirely from memory. In many spots, this is just a retelling of Doyle’s classic tales, but with changes in representation. In some sense, this exposes some fundamental bankruptcy in certain kinds of contemporary literature, the superficiality of a certain kind of change, paying lip service to representation by handing your character a different kind of hat. It is the video game character creation screen model of literature.

It’s too bad because I really like this writer. Katherine Addison is the nom de plume of writer Sarah Monette – and this is her second novel. Often, writers adopt pseudonyms for forays into other genres, but the two novels published under the Addison name could not be any more different in genre. The similarities are in the fundamental approach. Addison’s debut novel was The Goblin Emperor, a fantasy novel reviewed on this blog. Its most interesting characteristic is the complete resistance to grimdark tropes and structures, all while writing a deeply and richly imagined world full of intrigues. It is not that The Goblin Emperor did not have villains and dark characters – it is that their moral alignment was never hidden by the author, there are no betrayals, no senseless trudge through the fog of war and cruelty. In a way, writing a detective novel (rather than a noir) seems a logical continuation of Addison’s literary project. There are no murky characters at the end of a Holmes story, and Holmes powers of detection offer a bright light into ambiguities and rumors. In fact, this is so unusual for today’s popular forms of storytelling, that most adaptations of the books transform Moriarty into a more ambiguous, generally evil, tricky character. It is true that Moriarty was invented for complex metafictional reasons and in a way breaks the plane of storytelling, but there’s a misunderstanding which leads to this typical strange Sherlock tale in adaptation.

Addison’s departures are of a different kind. As someone uncomfortable with letting ambiguities sit in a narrative, her “wingfic” additions to Holmes are designed in a way that removes even the small smattering of ambiguity in Holmes’ stories. Holmes, the gaunt, stranger person, who has attracted all kinds of actors and scripts dealing with the lacunae in Doyle’s descriptions of the character, is easily explained by Addison as an angel. Things that require explanation and depth in a human being become immediately plausible in an angle. The sharp observation, the aloof stance, the way of talking and relating to people? Of course, an angel, that makes sense. And so on throughout the entire book. The classic Holmes stories are full of superstitious people who are tricked into believing rumors rather than archly look at facts. Addison translates all the superstitions into actually supernatural events. The dressed-up dog, pretending to be a family curse in “Hounds”? It is an actual hell-hound; I’m loath to add more details, because with the lack of plot related surprises in the book, the way Addison turns the stories’ elements literal is the main additional, interesting element remaining. This is not the first time I noticed this literal bent in contemporary literature and criticism. I have friends who are genuinely struggling with reading satirical books in a satirical way, stuck on the literal level.

That said, if you took out the Doyle stories from the book, this would be infinitely better. The inventions are manifold and impressive. Addison has built an entire bestiary and theology that she never explains in detail. Explanations are sprinkled throughout, done with a superb control of information and language. If not for the slavish attention to Doyle’s work, the additional elements are easily on par with China Miéville’s best work, and this is no overstatement. It isn’t towards the end that we learn about a prison for people of supernatural origins, there are structures of power for vampires who are also entirely abstinent. Being a hell hound can be an infliction. Like an illness or an std, in some sense it is literalized trauma. There are different orders of angels It is so full of ideas, all of which are fully realized and consistent. One wishes that the stories underneath all this were also original. I think I would have appreciated this more if I had more of an appreciation for the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories I have always considered significantly inferior to Chesterton’s Father Brown.