I had an unexpectedly bad reaction to this book, considering that I had relatively enjoyed the previous two books in the Call of Crows series. My impression of The Unyielding was so bad, in fact, that I don’t just think this was a bad installment in the series, but it has me questioning my taste over my higher ratings of the first two books. I’d re-read them to be sure I’m not crazy, but I don’t want to be proven right.
I re-read my old review, and the thing is, most of what I said there is still true. What makes the series work as a whole is the world-building and development of a complex story arc driven by Norse mythology and classic PNR tropes. It’s also still true that the women do have true agency in these books — they’re not pseudo-empowered Strong Female Characters who still end up playing second fiddle to alpha heroes. In each of the three Call of Crows books so far, the women make decisions for themselves and the men respect that. I’ll continue to defend these books on that front, that the women truly are in charge of themselves and their romantic partnerships are equal.
But there is a serious immaturity and crassness to the writing that has always existed, and in this book reached peak irritation. I remember it being just at the level that it made the books fun and irreverent, but in this one it just seemed desperately “edgy.” That’s largely because of the decision to center The Unyielding around Erin Amsel, self-proclaimed asshole, whose key personality trait is getting on everyone’s nerves. And the biggest problem with her as a character is not that even that she’s an asshole; it’s that she’s not actually as funny, clever, or even as mean as we’re supposed to believe she is. She just comes across like a pre-teen brat with a small and uncreative arsenal of insults and jibes. If you’ve ever watched a reality show and seen the person who likes to be indiscriminately rude to everyone else and their excuse for their rudeness is that they’re just being real, you’ve met Erin. She’s a low-level heckler who barely even manages to be truly insulting because she mostly just name-calls, then when getting dragged away from either an impending or a completed fight, defends herself by calling out “They started it!” and cracking herself up. It doesn’t sound funny, because it isn’t funny, even though it’s always played with this weird comedic beat that comes across as natural as a sitcom with the laugh track stripped out.
In the context of the story, the overall effect of Erin being rendered more merely pesky than truly formidable is that the logic of the story actually collapses. For reasons that are never really explained, Erin becomes this Chosen One figure, as somehow the other Crows and Viking clans build this plan that hinges around her being the Only One with the ability to travel to the underworld and steal a weapon that can kill the goddess Gullveig, who is trying to bring about Ragnarok. There is so much lip service paid to how they all can’t believe they have to rely on her, because she’s the worst and everyone hates her (no, seriously, they all talk about how she has beef with literally everyone) but she’s the only one who can possibly do it. But they don’t explain why that’s the case, and Erin herself is such a weak shit-talker, so she doesn’t, to me, appear any scarier than any of the other Crows, all of whom were reborn in anger and are quick to violence. She does have a special skill with flame that not all of the Crows have, but even that isn’t given as a particular reason why Erin is the one for the job; in fact, the only thing that keeps coming up over and over again is that her grating personality is somehow going to be the thing that qualifies her. So I’m left at a loss, because I can’t figure out why her juvenile taunting — which has been done better both by South Park and by actual ten-year olds — is evidence of some kind of superior questing or survival ability.
Additionally, the romance in this book is so insignificant, and makes so little sense, that it’s barely worth discussing. For some reason, over the course of the book, Erin and Steig develop feelings for each other, but there is only telling and no showing, so I didn’t feel the connection at all.
There are also a lot of plainly strange in-jokes that I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to remember context from previous books, or if they were just bad jokes that relied on random assumptions and the reader basically just going along with it. The best example of this I can give is this: toward the beginning of the book, before their relationship is firmly established, Erin stays the night at Steig’s following a violent incident that they were involved in with some non-Viking locals and that Erin doesn’t want to tell the rest of the Crows about. Knowing that the Crows and Steig’s clan the Ravens are gossipy, they decide they need to come up with a cover story. Erin suggests that they just tell everyone they slept together, and Steig’s response is that it’s not a good idea, because everyone is going to assume she took advantage of him. And Erin’s response is like, yeah right, whatever. But sure enough, when word starts spreading that they “slept together,” people keep going up to confront Erin about “How could she do that to Steig” and “Poor Steig,” and Erin’s main response is to laugh because comedy, right?
So, right off the bat, this is a really random premise that we’re just meant to take for granted, that in the absence of any other details, the idea of Erin and Steig sleeping together would reflect poorly on her. But… why? I know by this point in the book that Erin is meant to be a big bad asshole. But she’s not a sexual predator — she just has a big mouth. Why am I meant to accept that people would believe Erin would “take advantage” of Steig? And what is it about Steig that makes people automatically victimize him? In the chapters preceding where he is interacting with Erin, there isn’t even a whiff of him being vulnerable in any sense, including sexually. There is no indication of any uneven power dynamic between them, or any hint of Steig feeling discomfort around Erin beyond the usual irritation she seems to bring out in everyone. So what is the purpose of this extended joke that mean Erin preyed on sad Steig? If it’s just supposed to show what a bad impression everyone has of Erin, mission accomplished, but as far as being funny, it’s so poorly constructed as a joke that it’s almost irrelevant how tasteless it is because it doesn’t accomplish much more than confusion.
So with basically everything about this book falling flat for me, including elements like the humor that I am sure I had previously enjoyed, this is why I question my judgement. Why did these books work for me before when this one so spectacularly missed the mark? Has my taste changed so much? I don’t know, but I guess all that really needs to be said here in this review is that this book can be passed over.