To be honest once I started Queen of Crows was a hard sell, mainly because I knew this pretty blond woman was telling the story of an aged and respected Navajo shaman on the eve of a major historical tragedy for the tribe. But by the second page I was sunk. Ms. Valentinelli’s talent won me over. I’ve been known to crack open a Tony Hillerman book for a little light reading. This was particularly true during my teenage years. But I also delighted in Sherman Alexie’s thorough skewering of him in Indian Killer. An anglo writing about the indigenous has a tenuous path as far as tone and respect without making their characters too perfect and false. What’s brilliant is that Valentinelli managed this with grace in a short story medium.
I adore short stories particularly in the speculative fiction genre because of their limitations. You’ve got to get in there do some quick and memorable world-building and character sketches and then BAM! You’ve got to get out again after telling some kind of a story ark. This makes for affective storytelling when done right. A good short story should be like a honed diamond right to the midbrain.
At the start the main character Tse reflects about his life and the hard choice he must make to which he has already committed but dreads. He has collaborated with a corpse-witch in learning a forbidden spell for the good of his people and has sent them away ahead of a foreseen calamity at the hands of a U.S. Army moving west now that the Civil War is over. Knowing a tiny bit about the cleanliness beliefs of Navajo in general and particularly shamans this tells me all I need to know about how desperate is his gamble. He is compelled to summon an entity who has been communicating with him, but is it a savior spirit or a force of great evil?
Valentinelli provided enough cultural flavor show us her tale is well-researched and well-intentioned but not to an elaborate S.M. Stirling-like degree what would have been excessive. One unremarked quirk was how quickly the white men barged into Tse’s hogahn, this is a terrible breech of hospitality but she already told us what kind of a guy Tse is an it would have slowed the story down a notch. Also on a personal note as someone who stutters I was impressed by the treatment she gave Captain Maynard who stuttered in a realistic manner. Not many authors get it right and the list of actors who do pretty much starts and ends with Michael Palin.
I liked that the antagonists of the piece were not, aside from one real bastard, portrayed as evil bigots. Two of them were merely soldiers doing their unseemly bloody duty and all of them reacted in different three-dimensional ways to the weird bloody conclusion of the story.
I really appreciated the extras such as the artwork and author’s afterward. To be honest I didn’t read the first draft of the story, since Valentinelli had already warned us that is was “a jumble of words” that needed to be rewritten. I’ll leave the polished version fresh in my memory, thank you and await more stories about Mahochepi if you please. And please do.
[5 of 5 Stars!]