The Queen of All Crows by Rod Duncan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Queen of All Crows
When my request Queen of All Crows was approved on NetGalley, I was thrilled to hear that the wait to see what happened with Elizabeth Barnabus and John Farthing would be over. However, my experience reading the newest story in the world of the Gas-Lit Empire was a little different than it was last year. It is impossible to review without touching on how gender is portrayed in it.
Now, I’m more open about my gender identity, and am more engaged in conversations about gender and sexuality. Even though Elizabeth is referred to as “she/he” I’ve always thought “they/them” would be better suited as far as pronouns go. Barnabus was one of the first characters whose gender identity seemed to come close to mine — not really man or woman, but something fluid and in between.
Yes, pretending to be a young man was labeled as a disguise, but to me, it always seemed like it was more part of Barbabus’ identity than a disguise, and I think part of why my review is four-stars, not five, was because of the phrase “disguise herself as a man” being present in the back cover copy and the manly appearance being referred to as a disguise in general. Narratives where a character presents a different gender just for an external purpose sometimes make non-binary and fluid identities less valid. However, the saving grace in this series is that Elizabeth’s “disguise” is so much more than a disguise. And in Queen of All Crows, it becomes even clearer that not even Elizabeth truely understands their own identity.
I read slower than normal, rereading every sentence that hinted at Barnabus’ true gender identity. Some lines made me angry by placing Barnabus’ in a binary, but then there were twice as many that proved my theory that whether the author intended it or not, Barnabus was genderfluid.
The role gender played in this book went far beyond one character’s identity. I could write a twenty page paper analyzing gender in this book. Much of the plot was driven by power and perceptions of power: power over technology and weapons, but more importantly, the balance of power between men, women and those who are both or neither.
As anyone who has read the other books knows, the Gas-Lit empire, is not a place women have much power or agency. However, in Queen of All Crows Barnabus travels to an island made up of all women, which unfortunately, fell into the trope of a complete reversal — women enslaving men, and claiming they are better than them when they are really no different. I was a bit annoyed at this, but even here, the characters did not lack depth, and this little bubble of reversal did seem necessary to the larger plot at work throughout the serie. Since the characters were varied and not all raging idiots, and the description and integration into the world was so well done, I was able to forgive this.
The book did not have too many other flaws. The opening was slow, but once the plot picked up it was difficult to put the book down. The descriptions were detailed and gorgeous. The emotions and tensions high. The characters were tested and changed. The role of power and technology really got me thinking, and at times, I had to stop mentally debate ideas before diving back in. It has all the makings of a classic read that will endure for centuries.
Yes, there are some flaws, but every book has flaws, and this ones just make it more revealing in so many ways. I highly recommend it, but also reccomend you read Custodian of Marvels trilogy first.