I couldn’t find out if Paris was ever known as the ‘city of crows’, but crows, rats, disease, decay, plague, superstition, religious zealotry, witchcraft, burnings at the stake, evil, the devil, potions and spells all feature in this Paris of the 1670s. It is impossible for us in our sanitised, almost sterile and secular existences to even begin to imagine how hideous life was 350 years ago. The imagination required to create this story, and the skill to craft it is immense.
The mental pictures and images conjured up by the writer are so incredibly vivid. The physical descriptions of Paris, its poverty and depravity; the rural country side and forests in their untamed beauty and simplicity of living; life as a prisoner sentenced to years working as a galley slave; what people wore, what they ate, how they behaved towards each other (with mostly cruelty and ruthlessness).
But it is magic, black magic mostly, that is at the core of this novel. As a species, our whole society rests on how we explain the unexplained. Myths, legends, fairy tales, religions all present explanations for where we come from, what makes the sun rise every day, where storms come from… we worshipped gods of harvest to ensure food for the next year. These are just a few of the thousands of ideas we have come up with to explain the inexplicable – the ultimate tribute being a sacrifice of animals or humans to ensure the favour of the gods. So in 17th century Europe, with plague and pestilence or simply unexplained illness running rampart with no end in sight, and with praying getting no one anywhere, it is hardly surprising that people resorted to magic as yet another tool in the battle to stay alive and get ahead.
Charlotte Picot is a young peasant woman who has lost her husband to plague, and three other children in years past. She has decided to leave her sick village in search of a better life, and with her young son Nicolas, takes to the road. Nicolas is kidnapped by child slave traders, Charlotte left for dead. She is rescued by an old woman, well known and feared by locals as a witch. The witch passes to Charlotte her spells book, shows her what she can do to get her son back, and sends her on her way.
At the same time, an unusual man who goes by the name of Lesarge is also on the road, making his own way to Paris. He is probably what we would nowadays calls a trickster, a magician, a con man. He has been released from a ten year sentence on the galleys, and is on his way to recover a fortune he knows exists in Paris. Somehow, magic brings he and Charlotte together, and they forge an unlikely alliance. After a number of adventures and encounters, they make their way to Paris.
It is definitely a strange book, and it walks a very fine line between the real world and the magical world. Both of the main characters are extraordinary, and I veered from liking to disliking to liking to being horrified by what they will do together and individually to survive. There is always that little bit of tension too in the writing – will they see a way around their differences and fall for each other, or will they always remain distrustful and scared of each other.
Unfortunately, for me, the magic got to be a bit much. The ending was most unexpected, rather horrifying, and ultimately plain silly. However, as another review I read pointed out, we have no way of knowing what state of mind Charlotte may have been in, deeply grieving, losing her last surviving child, always on the brink of finding him, but never doing so. Is it this state of mind that tips her over the edge? Or are there really darker forces at work? And Lesarge’s moral compass is somewhat disturbed as well, and he struggles to break away from his past life in the shady world of magic, potions and poisons.
There is a fantastic imagination at work here, and the writing is terrific. But there is also a lot of magic and weirdness, and if the fantasy genre is not your thing, this will only be a 3 star. If fantasy is your thing, then this could well be a great read for you.
City of Crows
by Chris Womersley
Published by Picador