Author: Ed McDonald
First, an admission. I read a lot of books when my mental plate’s full, as they provide a bit of comfort and take off some strain from my overworked brain – when they’re good, of course, because bad books don’t help at all 🙂 However, by the same logic, I write no reviews when I’m stressed out, because writing demands a lot more from my already overworked brain 😛 No surprise, then, that lately there are less reviews on our blog, even though the amount of books I’ve recently read has noticeably grown.
I’ve spent the last couple of months checking out some of the books our fellow bloggers recommended, and Ed MacDonald’s Blackwing had been favorably reviewed by many. A special shout out to Aaron at Swords & Spectres for persuading me to finally try it out, because it was definitely worth it :).
Blackwing follows the story of Ryhalt Galharrow (it’s a mouthful, I know – try to say it out loud a few times!), a former pampered noble and an ex-Army officer who now serves as a Captain of Blackwing: a private military unit in employ of a Nameless sorcerer called Crowfoot. Galharrow as we meet him is a down-on-his-luck cutthroat – a glorified spy/bounty hunter/enforcer to a ruthless, ancient being, who had not been seen in the world for a long, long time. Yet, as the war between the Nameless sorcerers of the republic with powerful Deep Kings of the Eastern Empire still brews on, centuries in the making, Galharrow soon finds himself in the thick of the bloody action.
First of all, it’s a debut; and as a debut, Blackwing is hellishly impressive. McDonald possesses a sparseness, grace and surety of prose of much more experienced writers, and his command of language is enviable. His characters are fleshed out and believable, and their backstories, which we are left to piece together from bits and pieces scattered through the novel, serve as a bait and an anchor, keeping the reader’s attention as well as sneakily get him/her invested in the characters’ fate. Much of the novel’s appeal comes from the gritty, world-wearied voice of its narrator and main protagonist, Ryhalt Galharrow. He’s an interesting guy I wouldn’t really want to meet: a mix of Pratchett’s Sam Vimes and Bogart’s Sam Spade, with ruthlessness and vices of Cook’s Raven, and more than a touch of Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers. He’s a typical noir detective with military past, thrown into the middle of a fantastical, brutal world. Galharrow is ruthless and calculating, first and foremost a survivor. But he possesses qualities that come as a surprise even for himself – or mostly for himself, as his self-esteem has long ago hit the bottom and now, dead and shriveled, serves as food for less savory beings. He’s fiercely loyal, with a strong sense of justice and fairness, and a fair amount of dejected fatalism mixed with paranoia – in short, he’s a typical Western sheriff, alone against the uncaring world. He’s actually so typical that at the beginning he seemed a paper-thin stereotype. Thankfully, his voice and presence quickly became realistic enough that the generic frame could be forgotten and the force of his personality ultimately set the tone of the novel.
McDonald writes female characters well – their strength comes mostly from the fact that nothing really determines their actions as inherently gendered; were the sex roles reversed, they’d probably still make the same choices and acted along the same internalized values. And yet, they’re not sexless, and the fact that they are females plays an important role in the overarching plot. Ezabeth might come off as overly saint at times, and though this treatment seemed necessary as a tool to push Galharrow out of his current comfort zone and more into his old self, it flattened her character in an undeserved way. Or, it might have been the flame of the old love that blinded Ryhalt into seeing her in such a light 😉 Either way, her relationship with Galharrow was the emotional axis of the book, and McDonald knew perfectly well how to deliver a very satisfying conclusion.
In the topic of women, it would be a sin not to mention Nenn. I really appreciated how her character had been presented: ferocious and brutal and insecure, with an incurable case of puppy love for Galharrow, who of course remains oblivious to it all. As we see her through Galharrow’s eyes, we see only those aspects of her that Ryhalt sees – and the play of expectations and reality forms a basis for an important element of the plot in the second book, Ravencry (yes, I’ve read it already – see the first paragraph :P).
Ok, I’ve been gushing long enough that I either lulled you into believing that everything was perfect, or you’re already waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop 😛
Here it is: while the characters were superbly done, the worldbuilding left a lot to be desired. It had been very generic, to the point of changing into a set of used theatrical props. How many times did I encounter this Biblical trope of the desert? Call it what you will, Misery/Plain of Fear/blight/Veil/an unnamed, unhealed wound in the ground/etc./etc…, it just shows up and up and up. Maybe it’s simply because the military/epic fantasy genre lends itself easier to it than others ;). It is a handy tool, don’t get me wrong: done well, it works wonders, especially when merged with the hero’s journey trope and the general philosophy of knowing thyself. But in Blackwing the Misery just sat there, a nasty, dusty, threatening piece of background, with neon signs “here be dragons” everywhere. Even the monsters were generic. Sigh. But I’m happy to report it gets much, much better in Ravencry! 🙂
And then, it’s almost always a republic against an empire. Again, it can be done very well, as McClellan’s books can attest, but it can also be done not so well; in here, the politics play almost no role, except for the fact that the “republic” has an elite class of nobles owning almost everything, the other classes are mostly poor and badly used, and the other side is so bad with its ruthless rulers and hordes of zombies that the name Eastern Empire must simply have been predestined 😛 It was indeed painful for me – but I can be an exception 😉 You could probably easily ignore it altogether, especially if you’re not a political/military fantasy buff.
Add to it the Nameless, and though I appreciated the effort of showing their long backstory along the lines of ascendancy, they also seemed like a necessary prop, an unmoving, unbeatable piece on the board found on the attic in the box labeled “cantankerous old bastards”.
Yet again, there were some nice, redeemable twists along the way, and even though they were not very surprising, they hadn’t been signaled off half a book before – the clues were here and there, aptly scattered in many places, so that the reader, if he/she felt so disposed, could pick them up and puzzle it out. If, of course, they had time for such stuff, because the second half of the novel significantly picked up the pace and from a noir crime changed into full-fledged epic fantasy. Similarly, the Deep Kings seemed very generically Lovecraftian and underdeveloped – hopefully this will change in the third book.
To sum it up, the first book in McDonald’s trilogy Raven’s Mark is a solid, highly entertaining, fast-paced and well-written read. I enjoyed it enough to delve into the second installment immediately after I finished the first, and I will definitely read the third once it’s out. Plus, look at that glorious cover!