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The Clockwork Crow

December 29, 2020

A Welsh Christmas tale, The Clockwork Crow, by Catherine Fisher, is my favorite of her winter tales, including The Snow-Walker Trilogy, which is arguably more original. I like the simplicity of this rescue-from-the-fairy-realm tale, and that it concludes on Christmas Day.

The adventure of The Clockwork Crow begins when a young girl, Seren Rhys, rescues a parcel left in a train station by a mysterious stranger and finds a disassembled clockwork crow with a warning reading “danger! Do not assemble” and thinks “so it was some sort of toy. A puzzle? What good was it if you couldn’t assemble it? She felt oddly disappointed. That man in the dark coat had been really scared and desperate to keep this safe, but why was a toy so important? Was it a present for his little boy? That might be it, because soon it would be Christmas.”

Seren has lived in an orphanage for twelve years, since her parents died when she was a baby, but she is traveling to Wales, to an estate named Plas-y-Fran, to meet her godfather and his family, who have offered to take her in. She is excited, picturing the home of her dreams, with “a huge tree full of shining candles, and a goose to eat, plum pudding and maybe oranges. And a present all wrapped in shiny gold paper that Lady Mair would hold out to her.” When she arrives, however, she finds nothing but a mostly empty house and a few staff members. They don’t like to talk about it, but eventually Seren discerns that the parents are traveling because it’s been almost a year since their son Tomos disappeared. She discovers a locked room in the attic, a nursery full of toys, but sees nothing through the keyhole but shadows. With nothing else to do, she puts together the clockwork pieces of the crow and winds it up. When the crow speaks, it assumes she’s “a princess?…A duchess?…A marquise, a contessa? A baroness at least?” When she tells it no, that she’s an orphan, it says “An orphan! This is ridiculous! How can I possibly be expected to be unspelled in a place like this?” The crow is “disgusted….This is what always happens. The clockwork runs out and no one winds me up. I’m sick of it. Whole centuries go by and I have no idea what’s going on. Then I wake up in some rubbish house with some infant child.”

Seren and the crow investigate the locked nursery and find a collection of snow globes and a diary that belonged to Tomos. Seren imagines that she is investigating in the manner of a detective in one of her books, Sherlock Holmes. When she reads in the diary that Tomos also heard a bell at midnight, as she has, she knows where to start looking—down the stairs, deep under the house, where Tomos says, in his diary, “usually the cellars are dark and dusty but tonight it was all different. There were some golden stairs that led downwards.” The crow tells her that the stairs lead to “The Fair Family. The White People. You don’t mess with them.” One of the servants tells her that The Family are called “The Tylwyth Teg” and that they are “magic, secret creatures. They never get old, and they can be beautiful, or they can be ugly and twisted and wild. They live under the ground. Or maybe in the lake. This used to be all their land, thousands of years ago, until people came.”

The housekeeper eventually tells Seren that “Tomos went out of the house for a walk after breakfast one morning, and he never came back….Last year. In fact, on Christmas Eve.” And the crow tells her that there’s a chance to rescue Tomos, a year and a day after he disappeared, when “the bell will ring, and the golden stairs will appear.” And they do, at midnight, and Seren and the crow follow them until she hears music, an irresistible music that she wants to hear but stops hearing when the crow gives her one of the feathers from its tail.

Deep below the earth, she walks through a meadow and then a wood and then, “beyond the wood, high on a hill of snow, there rose a palace. It was like all the palaces she had read about in the fairy tales. Diamond-white and shining. It had thin towers and turrets, high walls, gleaming roofs of silver. Every pinnacle was decorated with a flag and each flag showed a different bird.” The crow keeps her safe from them, telling her not to look behind her and she runs up the stairs towards the lighted window where they think Tomos must be. “Out of the corners of her eyes she saw their reaching fingers, white as bone, their silver eyes….She felt Them all around her, their hands on her spine, their fingers in her hair, their soft whispers in her ears. If she turned she would see Them, and they would take her hands and they would lead her away, because already their magic was in her heart and she longed to go with them.” Seren resists and finds Tomos, but he doesn’t seem to realize he needs rescue, although he does admit that he’s been “lying on this bed for a few minutes trying to work it out. It’s like home, but it’s not. As if They tried to make a copy, and couldn’t.”

Seren convinces Tomos to run away with her, through the underground tunnels and back to the surface, where they find themselves under the lake. They have to go back, though, and rescue the crow, which they do because Seren finds the courage to face Them and say “I can’t stay with you. I have to go back. I’m sorry.” She then breaks their spell and she and Tomos and the crow find themselves lying in the snow in front of Plas-y-Fran and it is Christmas morning.

All the household staff and Tomos’ parents are there, and they are so grateful she has rescued Tomos that they promise that she is “going to be like a daughter” to them. Seren’s wishes have come true, including her first real Christmas present and “a huge Christmas tree, all lit with candles. Toys and baubles and sweetmeats hung from its branches. Angels and stars peeped from its top.”

The adventure over, the crow departs, although he leaves one of his feathers with Seren, which she uses to call him back for another adventure, The Velvet Fox. I enjoyed that one too, but there’s nothing like a good fairy tale that ends with a child’s wishes coming true on Christmas morning. I hope that once or twice you’ve gotten to make some of a child’s wishes come true on Christmas, or that one day you will, because there’s nothing else quite like it.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 29, 2020 12:13 pm

    I’ve yet to continue with the remaining two volumes in the trilogy but I did so enjoy this when it first came out. Despite some plot resolution, all those loose threads left dangling do demand a return to Seren’s world! And it all seems to be set a few miles south of where I currently live…

    • December 29, 2020 6:02 pm

      That must be really fun; I love it when fiction is set somewhere I live (or have lived). The most recent one that fits that description is a disturbing novel entitled Ohio by Stephen Markley, who grew up in the town I am still living in. The Welsh fairy tales are much nicer, even if they’re scary in a different way.

  2. December 29, 2020 7:20 pm

    I’ve never heard of this book (or author) before but it sounds lovely.

    • December 29, 2020 9:06 pm

      I hadn’t heard of it before I read about it at Cafe Society and then started noticing other British book bloggers talking about the author.

  3. December 30, 2020 5:24 am

    This sounds very tempting … the library I use online doesn’t have it but I could try recommending it. It’s very true that making a child’s wishes come true on Christmas morning is the best possible magic!

  4. December 30, 2020 5:00 pm

    Hmmm…this is giving me Invention of Hugo Cabret vibes… 🙂

    • December 31, 2020 9:23 am

      There are some surface similarities, but a different feel and no pictures in this one, at least not in my copy.

  5. December 31, 2020 9:10 am

    I still haven’t read anything by Catherine Fisher! And this sounds like an absolute dear of a book, particularly given how much I love Christmas (which is infinity).

  6. Sue permalink
    January 2, 2021 11:59 pm

    Hi Jeanne, I promised I would come across from Sue’s blog at Whispering Gums in Australia to say hello and see how you are faring in these difficult times. I hope all is well with you there! Very best wishes for the New Year!

    • January 3, 2021 9:51 am

      Thanks; I depend on my Australian book blogger friends to keep me going with scenes of summertime for the next few months!

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