‘City of Crows’ – Chris Womersley

Historical novel informed by witchcraft and mysticism chronicles a journey, and is one at the same time.

'City of Crows'; sadly not about Adelaide
‘City of Crows’; sadly not about Adelaide

Within this book, set in France, 1673… there’s more rats and pestilence than haute couture. Our heroine, Charlotte Picot, has upped and left her village behind and headed via Lyon to Paris (the titular city of crows; again, this isn’t about Adelaide) in a desperate effort to save her own life, and that of her son – the last of her kiddies not to fall to the plague (cheery tome, this one).

Things go pear shaped, as you might expect. The kiddie is stolen and Charlotte is left for dead, and it’s at this point of desperation that Charlotte makes some compromising decisions, takes on new, mystical skills and the companionship of a chap who isn’t who he appears to be. Its a book which claims to be fact-based, but a few liberties have — by all rights — been taken.

The thing of it is, at times, the book is just a hard slog. Much of the dialogue falls short of truth, but I’d wager actual money that’s just my misguided interpretation. Especially when there’s tarot card readings going on, and I couldn’t help but feel my attention wander to what I was going to eat next. I’d call myself the Knave of Cups, but it’d make as much sense to us all as calling myself a bowl of peanuts.

I felt that the narrative arc, as straightforward and structured as it was, had less of a satisfying payoff than the sheer density of the piece would have you believe. Notions of good and evil, the willingness to sacrifice some part of yourself for one reason or another, this is all very nice, but it was essentially signposted very early on, and a key scene in the final act robs Charlotte of all traces of sympathy.

For Australian author Womersley, one must credit the scale and scope of the work, as it shows a solid attention to detail and research for a time and place one would not expect of an author among my fellow countrymen. Having said that, the word ‘ponderous’ floated in and out of my mind as the narrative wound its way towards the end. One could not help but will the story on to its conclusion.

City of Crows is, sadly, a mostly unsatisfying read. You can’t win ‘em all.

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