America's most macabre poet is tormented by his muse — literally — in this young adult imagining of Edgar Allan Poe's teenage years.
Edgar can't wait to get out of Richmond, where everyone knows him as a charity case who was taken in by the Allan family after his parents died. The problem is that his foster father will only pay for him to go away to university if he gives up writing. But giving up on his brooding, romantic verse is unthinkable, especially once it gives birth to a flesh and blood muse. Lenore is a vision of horror, with raven feathers in her hair and a string of teeth about her neck like jewels, and Edgar can't deny the connection that burns between them.
Muses made manifest aren't unusual in this slightly alternate version of the early 19th century. Every creative person has one, whether they are hearthside storytellers or singers in the church choir. But most muses don't linger long in their eerie, human state. Once a creative person has dedicated themselves to their art, their muse moves into the spirit realm, appearing only in bird form in the corporeal world. And Edgar learns much of what he knows about muses from an enslaved woman named Judith, who helped raise Edgar and who has an owlish muse of her own.
Tormented by his foster father's disapproval and cruelty, Edgar battles against his muse, leaving her to fend for herself in a town where everyone fears her. Even once he gets away to university, he shoves her to the side, relying instead on his more presentable satiric muse, a snotty young gentleman who introduces himself at one of the little salons that Edgar hosts in his room. When his foster father fails to pay for his expenses, Edgar spirals into debt and self-loathing as he tries and fails to resist his love of the dark creativity that Lenore represents. His only hope is to cast off the judgement that has shadowed his entire life and embrace his true talent.
The Raven's Tale is a flawed book, but the concept is intriguing. In a genre where brooding boys so often rule the romantic roost, teenage Edgar Allan Poe is kind of an ideal hero for a work of historical fantasy. Between his tragic childhood loss, his complicated relationship with his family, and his burgeoning creativity, he makes for a sympathetic and interesting protagonist. The best parts of the book pit Edgar against very real hardships, and we see the historical details come to life. We cringe at his embarrassment about being the only student not in uniform, because his foster father won't pay for one. We shiver alongside him when he runs out of firewood and is forced to burn his table to keep from freezing. We feel the tumbling loss when he goes to a party to see his secret fiancée, only to discover it's her engagement party to another, wealthier gentleman.
Because these are its strengths, I wish The Raven's Tale focused on offering thoughtfully considered historical fiction instead of taking flight into more fantastical realms. For me, the conceit of the living muse is confusing. Everyone seems to be vaguely aware that muses exist, but if they exist with the frequency portrayed, it seems like they would be an accepted part of society instead of the oddity they seem to be.
But the biggest difficulty I have with The Raven's Tale is the way it represents slavery. Poe's foster family owned three slaves. In the book, Edgar has a close relationship with Judith, who goes so far as to say that she cares for him as if he were her own son. She exists in the narrative to support Edgar emotionally — in particular as a spiritual advisor in the ways of muses – making her uncomfortably close to the stereotypical "magical negro."
There is a moment where it seems like the narrative almost wants to engage with the topic of slavery. Edgar is ordering Lenore around, and she proclaims, "you are not my master," prompting him to reconsider his treatment of her. But when you consider the fact that Edgar is in a position to order around other people who are literally enslaved, a void opens up at the center of this book. Slavery is more horrifying than any of the macabre imaginings Edgar can conjure, and his foster father's refusal to offer unconditional love and support his creative pursuits pales in severity when you consider that he owns other human beings.
The Raven's Tale is a story about listening to your inner voice and trusting yourself, and about parents passing down their own repression and pain to their children. These are worthy topics, but it's difficult to look at them with full interest when something so much darker lurks just beneath the surface.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.