BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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Book Review: The Unkindness of Ravens


Title: The Unkindness of Ravens (Trickster's Mark Book One)

Publisher: Bimulous Books

Author: Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Pages: 114 pp

Price: $9.95 / $3.99

The oba is dead. The Eight Great Houses have gathered to select a new leader from among the royal heirs. Anari of House Crow is one such heir, but he is well aware that his House God does not favor him. He will have to go into exile with a few loyal servants, living out his life among foreigners and the Scorned. But when he is poisoned and nearly killed, Anari is forced to flee the capital. Taken in by a small group of Scorned, Anari's eyes are opened to the reality of what is happening in his country, and the true reasons behind the on-going war between his people and the foreigners. And then he attracts the attention of the Crow God Himself ....

African-based fantasy is hard to come by (or maybe I've just been looking for it in the wrong places). When an advanced copy of The Unkindness of Ravens popped up on netgalley, I read the synopsis and immediately downloaded it. A few weeks passed before I as able to read it, but, once I started, I devoured the book.

The world-building in The Unkindness of Ravens is amazing for such a short novel. Staffin-Wiebe weaves information about the Houses, the Gods, and the society they have created throughout the story, dropping just enough each time to keep the reader from being lost, but not so much as to be overwhelming. It is a rare skill to present such information organically within a story without it feeling like an intrusive "Look, Reader, important info here!" moment. For example, Anari refers to the oba as his "seed father." Eventually, the reader figures out that the oba takes one spouse from each of the Eight Houses, and any children born of those unions are members of that House but also royal heirs. If a woman is chosen as oba, she not only takes a husband from each House, but also has co-wives who wed the same men; and their children are also considered royal heirs.

The House structure is complex, but not confusing. Each House is patronized by a different God (e.g., Horse, Hyena, Viper, et cetera). Each House also has a number of sub-houses, or Bands, who honor a lesser God (e.g., Band Mule of House Horse). House Crow was once a Band within House Raven, until Crow attracted enough followers and gained enough power to break away; hence the rivalry between the two Gods, which is passed down to their Houses. On top of that, the members of each House display physical characteristics modeled after those of their House God, as well as psychological/spiritual advantages and disadvantages. As a member of House Crow, Anari is smaller than most men, but also quick and cunning. The members of rival House Raven tend to be larger, more aggressive, and quicker to anger, but also serve as priests of the dead.

It should be apparent by now that The Unkindness of Ravens is a thoroughly polytheist fantasy. The Gods are very real and very active in the lives of the people, right down to affecting their physical and mental development. And while the people may not necessarily love their Gods (it's complicated), they are deeply respectful of the Gods' power and authority and of the laws they have established.

At only eight chapters, The Unkindness of Ravens is a quick read. But it is exciting and fascinating and fun, with terrific characters, a bit of a mystery, and the fate of an entire kingdom at stake.

Highly recommended to fans of Aliette de Bodard, P. Djélí Clark, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Charles Saunders.  

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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