John Crowley has long been one of the most contentious names in fantasy literature. While lauded by critics and erudite readers, his popularity remains minimal in the mainstream. And the reasons are clear. Steering wide of melodrama, stereotype, contrived plots, and other familiar elements of popular fiction, Crowley has always utilized distant prose to grapple with abstract albeit human ideas. Little, Big, Aegypt, and other such novels utilized elements of genre (faires, alternate history, etc.) in setting and plot, but focused their content on the value of stories, memory, and other such broad themes. In 2017, however, Crowley set out to write a more accessible novel, Ka: Dar Oakley and the Ruin of Ymr being the result. Thankfully, Crowley did not stray far from his roots.
Ka is foremost a frame story—or at least a story that begins in media res. An unnamed elderly man finds Dar Oakley the crow in his backyard one day. In poor health, the bird starts to relate his life story to the old man. And it’s an amazing story. Dar Oakley, or as he was originally known, Dar Oak of Lee, was born into a murder in the woods of primeval Wales. Befriending a young native girl named Fox Cap, he watches as the girl grows up to become something of a shaman among her people. Deciding to embark on a trip to the underworld to bring back a cauldron that will cure the mortality—wars, illness, old age—plaguing her people, Fox Cap asks Dar Oakley if he wants to go with her, and he agrees. But things underground don’t go as planned. Emerging back into the world, Dar Oakley finds himself caught in a loop of life and death that persists through the centuries, and, interestingly enough, at a prime viewing spot to see evolution of mankind through the branches below him.