Colin has lost his memory. He can't even remember the predators he is supposed to stay away from, not coyotes, not lynx, not even the most dangerous of all¨humans. Luckily, he meets fellow ravens Zack and Molly and eventually joins the Raven's End flock. But dreams and prophetic visions lead Colin away from his new family on a quest for his lost identity.
In Raven's End, Ben Gadd brings his experience as a naturalist and mountain climber to a tale of adventure in the Canadian Rockies. The strength of the novel is Gadd's loving descriptions of the mountain ecosystem. He revels in wonderfully gross scenes of eating road kill, and he gives us the dizzying view of the Rockies from above as if he had flown it himself. In this story it is not just the animals who speak, but the sun, the rocks and even lichen, suggesting that the ravens are all part of a larger cycle of life.
Unfortunately, there are certain pitfalls to writing a talking animal story, and Gadd has not managed to avoid them all. Belief in a fantasy is a tenuous thing, predicated on a reader's trust that the writer is following a set of rules as fixed as the law of gravity. From the beginning the reader is unsure of the logic to Gadd's universe. For instance, the ravens call themselves "C.C"., as in Colin C.C., Greta C.C. The initials stand for Corvus Corax. Do they know the alphabet? Do they know the Latin term for their own species? The human names are also a sticking point. They are weighted with too much human cultural history.
Truly believable animal characters are molded by their own animal nature. In Silverwing, Kenneth Opel's bats could only be bats. In Watership Down, Richard Adams' rabbits could only be rabbits. There are times when the ravens of this story threaten to become people in feathers. They smile when they are happy. They understand directions like, "just follow Carrot Creek to the highway and turn right." Of course, a raven's knowing right from left is no more unlikely than his ability to speak English, but the reader's suspension of disbelief is too often jolted by these lapses into humanness. When a raven brings a shiny object home after a foraging trip to a national park, another raven is heard to mutter, "Ah, kids. They just can't leave Banff without a souvenir." The joke is not worth the resulting interruption of the fantasy.
The novel is partially redeemed by well-paced storytelling and by a clever surprise ending, but the raven's too-human behavior and mode of speech mar what could have been an action-packed good read.
Lena Coakley is a children's writer and reviewer who lives in Toronto.