THE RAVENMASTER by Christopher Skaife


My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London
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When the ravens disappear from the Tower of London, the tale goes, then England will fall—good reason to keep someone on staff to keep the birds happy.

What’s the difference between a raven and a crow? No, it’s not that one’s for the crockpot and one for the oven. There’s much more to it than that, and one of the best people to tell you about the matter is “Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife, of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary,” as the author identifies himself. Rather more informally, he’s the Ravenmaster, the fellow who looks after the resident raven population at the famed Tower of London. This is no easy job; Skaife writes with rueful authority of having to overcome his understandable fears of being put in a cage to study, up close, a bird that for all purposes might as well have been a condor at first glance. His affection for the birds has evolved, though, and he writes movingly of the many ways in which harm can come to them—including, strangely enough, being hurt in a fall. “These days,” he writes, “if a raven dies unexpectedly at the Tower and I’m not sure of the cause of death, I take it to the vets at the London Zoo for a post-mortem." As for the legend, supposedly dating to the time of Charles II, that the health of the birds is correlated to the health of the Crown, Skaife does a nice bit of historical archaeology to dig up evidence for the legend, which turns out to be more modern than advertised. It’s no H Is for Hawk as a literary achievement, but Skaife’s account delivers a pleasing set of anecdotes that will appeal to the Atlas Obscura–reading crowd, to say nothing of corvid fans.

For those seeking the secrets of the Tower of London without actually being imprisoned there, this is just the thing.

Pub Date: Oct. 2nd, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-374-11334-6
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2018


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