Before the mountain at the world’s end was built on the river plain, before the high city there grew up, before most of the Ravens went away into the forests of the deep, before the People’s long rage to kill Crows, before Dar Oakley’s sea-journey into the West, before the Most Precious Thing was found and lost again, before the ways were opened to the lands of the dead, before there were names in Ka, before Ymr came to be and therefore before Ka knew itself, Dar Oakley first knew People.
Dar Oakley didn’t have that name then, or any name. It would be eons before Crows each had a name, as they do now; then, no, they had no need of them, they called those around them Father, Brother, Sister, Older Sister, Other Older Sister; those they didn’t know as relations, or forgot in what degree, were spoken of as Those Ones, or Others, or All of Them There, and so on. And since they had little to say about other Crows or very much need to talk about them when not in their presence, this was enough.
But without names it’s impossible to remember stories, and hard to tell them. So Dar Oakley will begin as Dar Oakley in this one.
This is definitely one of the best contemporary fantasies I have read. I think I like it considerably better than Little, Big, which I reread earlier this year. Little, Big is beautifully written and imaginative, but I found it emotionally unsatisfying. The one has all the good points of Little, Big, but I like the characters much better. (The novella Great Work of Time is brilliant, though. It is included in Novelty: Four Stories, or the later collection Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction.)
Ka is the story of an impossibly long-lived Crow named Dar Oakley, told by an old man who knew him. Dar Oakley’s story begins in the ancient world, when he was a young Crow (it is always capitalized in the book) and ends in a post-apocalyptic world, with the decay of modern civilization that gives the book its subtitle. He has many adventures along the way, crossing the Atlantic with Irish monks, going to the land of the dead, and returning to our world. The Crow point of view is very convincing and well-researched, and definitely gives the book a distinctive voice. The book is divided into four sections, each for a different era. This is a story about death and time, and about ecology, and about stories, and about the immortality we find in stories.
He thinks about stories, how if they begin at all, then their ends are set, they can only happen one way: or is that so only with the stories Death tells in Ymr, about the beings there? Maybe such stories are told so that the living will learn, and learn again and again, that they’ll never win anything from that realm…
…We’re made of stories now, brother. It’s why we don’t die even if we do.