When my friend and amazing author/artist Gina Siciliano mentioned she was working on a review of the first three Call of the Crow Quartet books, I couldn’t wait to read it – and I’m excited to share it with you all today (with Gina’s permission). I love how it brings in some Seattle history and context that underlies the books, even if it isn’t discussed on the page explicitly, and how Gina weaves in some of her own experiences throughout. Note, the review is not too spoilery, as it’s more focused on character than plot.
For an extra bonus, check out the Fan Art Gallery to see her beautiful sketches of the four main characters. Huge thanks to Gina for writing up this review and allowing me to share it!
Call of the Crow Quartet: A Review
Alanna Peterson’s Call of the Crow Quartet is the kind of young adult fiction that we need. Book one, When We Vanished, was released at the onset of the pandemic. Book two, Where Shadows Grow, and book three, Within Every Flame, followed quickly behind, unresolved in anticipation of the fourth and final book, which has yet to be released.
When I moved to Seattle in 2007 I lived with my sister and her husband a few blocks away from Peterson and her family in South Seattle/Rainier Valley. Her kids were around the same age as my little nephew. My family eventually moved away, but we kept in touch, visiting semi-regularly and watching the kids grow up. When they were little Peterson’s kids played with simple wooden toys and musical instruments, the kitchen filled with local produce ripening under sunny windows, the yard full of shaggy trees and clover patches. Her family’s aesthetic felt similar to my own—crowded and rough around the edges, but honest and humble. Thus, the Call of the Crow Quartet falls into this aesthetic too, and into the overall feelings I associate with the author, her family, her home, and South Seattle/Rainier Valley in general.
Seattle remains segregated, its history of red-lining still raw. Generally the North side is wealthier and whiter, while the South side is more diverse and working class, often bitterly neglected by Seattle politics. The ongoing threat of gentrification looms heavily, regardless of recent efforts to revitalize the area with the ‘Rainier Valley Creative District.’ However, in her books Peterson doesn’t emphasize this setting as much as the psychology of her characters. We are in their minds more than their neighborhood.
Although Peterson is white, the Quartet feels well researched and believable; but as a white reader I cannot comment on the merits of her representation of Iranian-American and Asian-American perspectives. In Within Every Flame the racial issues become more prevalent—we discover that Naveed is a bit darker than his brother, Cyrus. These issues are woven throughout the Quartet, the same way that racism is woven through everything in real life too. Peterson’s intersectional approach is emphasized by the fact that there’s not a single protagonist but a group of four. She slips into their various viewpoints, alternating between them as they face different kinds of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, etc. Peterson ambitiously covers a lot of ground, weaving complex plotlines around one other.
The result is that readers see bits and pieces of themselves within each character. Plus, since I know Peterson personally, I can see her and her family in the characters too. Roya, the only one who isn’t a teenager yet, represents the innocence of childhood, and a spiritual link with nature. The passages that center Roya exude traces of ‘magical realism,’ other-worldliness, a sense that anything is possible. In Within Every Flame, Peterson introduces a book within the book, Katerina and the Little Strangers, which pushes the ‘magical realism’ element further, almost dipping the Quartet into science-fiction. Cyrus embodies the digital revolution that we’re in the midst of, with all of its fast-paced possibility alongside its darker draw-backs. Andi represents the Artist, in this case the medium is music. Throughout the Quartet, her relationship with her artwork evolves—musical composition becomes her anchor and outlet. She learns that art can be a safe space, leading to empowerment. I could relate to her passion for a vocation that is not seen as a viable career in this country. Within Every Flame demonstrates how dangerous it can be to steer teenagers away from the therapeutic benefits of creative practice, even when this steering is rooted in deep love and understandable worry. Finally, Naveed, the oldest central character, represents the transition into adulthood. Like the parents, Naveed can be nurturing, especially to Roya, the littlest. He also feels the weight of his mother’s return to Iran the most.
When I was a teenager the majority of adults were considered enemies. I was learning about politics, activism, feminism, veganism, anti-racism; but this new awakening was at best tolerated by adults, at worst condemned. Neither was there any meaningful discussion about trauma or mental health. There was no language or framework with which teenagers could effectively report abuse and receive emotional and/or physical support.
The Call of the Crow Quartet illuminates a different reality where family units actually work together. However, these interpersonal relationships are still full of problems to work through. Conflicts arise especially when family members cease to communicate, leading to misunderstandings and resentments. When We Vanished, the first book, begins with a street protest gone awry. As the plot unfolds, the characters find themselves enmeshed in the sinister underworld of a mysterious junk food corporation.
As the Quartet continues, the characters react to and recover from the initial violence in the first book. In Where Shadows Grow I was relieved to see myself in Naveed, which helped me come to terms with my own struggles with PTSD. Peterson describes his mind splitting into different battling, inner voices, and the tendency to strike out at loved ones, as the damaged brain no longer recognizes danger properly. Through Naveed, Peterson articulates the shame and helplessness produced by a society that has little patience for survivors or understanding of the science behind mental illness.
While Where Shadows Grow highlights Naveed’s trauma, Within Every Flame highlights Andi’s experience as a young Asian-American woman. Just as the book came out, real life Asian-American student Alex Su was organizing protests against her high school for ignoring her request to transfer an abusive ex out of her classes. On November 19, 2021, 700 students walked out in solidarity. Su was then expelled, which sparked protests at a handful of other schools in the Seattle area.
Alanna Peterson’s Call of the Crow Quartet aligns with this local spirit of resistance. There is an impulse to shield young people from conflict, to hide the terrifying machinations of this country from them out of fear. Yet, as we move through the pandemic, there seems to be a collective reckoning with the psychological, social, and political impact of trauma. In these books I see a new blueprint for parenting that values controversy, protest, and the courage to face the pressing issues of the world together.