The Queen of All Crows is the first in a new series by Rod Duncan, following the adventures of Elizabeth Barnabus – heroine of his first trilogy, ‘The Fall of the Gaslit Empire’. Duncan’s Gaslit Empire reads and feels like the world of a Victorian detective adventure (think Sherlock Holmes, the Blake & Avery Mysteries, Charles Dickens) but the twist is that the year is actually 2012.
Full disclosure: I have not previously read any of the Gaslit Empire novels, so the 2012 twist was new for me. The premise is that The Empire in which Elizabeth Barnabus lives has banned most forms of advanced technology, to prevent “harm to the common man”. The result is a society in stasis – travel is via air ships and paddle boats, clothing is restrictive, women are second class citizens.
I am glad to say I didn’t feel at too much of a disadvantage not having read the previous Barnabus novels; the hints of her life before were enough for me to feel engaged in her story. The mystery at the heart of the novel means the narrative cracks along at a pace with few slow moments, Elizabeth’s complex relationships with the people closest to her are dealt with sympathetically and her isolation as a woman in a male-dominated society feels real.
The novel begins with Elizabeth working on a whaling ship, disguised as a man. There is very much a feel of the hero myth in her journey alone into the unknown; she must use her intelligence and the skills learned in her earlier life to succeed in the task she has taken on. At all times I was aware of her vulnerability and admired her courage; essentially alone and unwelcome on the whaler, she is no more welcome or accepted when she is called back to The Mother Ship by those who have engaged her – it is like she belongs nowhere.
Elizabeth is searching for her friend Julia, who has gone missing in an airship accident. Her journey takes her via the machinations of The Company, to a mystery island where women are not second- class citizens – men are. Her only companion on this journey is her young friend Tinker; their relationship is deeply moving and on page 326 even made me cry! I was very glad of Tinker – he means that Elizabeth is not really alone, and he gives her much needed support on her journey to find Julia. He is R2D2 to Elizabeth’s Luke.
The Gaslit Empire is the ‘Big Brother’ affair we are familiar with from so much popular culture – why isn’t technology allowed? What or who is The Company? Does anyone know the truth of what is going on? One of the things I liked about this story is that Elizabeth doesn’t really care about finding ‘the truth’ about the Empire, or The Company, her search is personal and the dodgy ethics and shady shenanigans of the men in charge are merely obstacles to be dealt with on her journey, though I expect a search for The Truth will become more important as the series progresses.
I also liked the strong feminist under-current throughout – Elizabeth and Julia are both strong women; the Sargassans – who oppose The Company – are clever, powerful, technologically capable, and really cool. The Queen of Crows of the title is the awesome leader of this band of female pirates.
I very much enjoyed this novel and am very much looking forward to sourcing the first trilogy to learn more about Elizabeth’s earlier life, and to reading the next instalment of The Map of Unknown Things. Definitely recommend.