Author: Ed McDonald
In preparation for the upcoming conclusion to McDonald’s trilogy, Crowfall, I decided it was high time to share my thoughts about Ravencry, which I read back in February, right after I finished Blackwing. Talk about procrastination 😉
While Blackwing was a powerful new entry into gritty military fantasy, well-written, riveting and – what’s quite astounding – a debut, Ravencry was even better. With the world and main characters already established, McDonald focused more on character development and intrigue, introducing a much better fleshed-out – and truly creepy – villain, believable motivations, and delightfully raised stakes. All in all he succeeded in smoothing the rough edges of his original creation while keeping all the grimness, bravado and rakish charm I appreciated in Blackwing.
In the four years that passed since Nall’s engine was repaired and Deep Kings retreated across Misery, Galharrow found his position much improved. As a Captain of newly reinstated Blackwings, with a measure of regained social standing and a nice mansion in the city, Galharrow has more work than he ever dreamed of – and drowns himself in it just to stop thinking of Ezabeth, whom he still mourns. Ezabeth’s death hangs like a pall over Ryhalt and over everything he does; in the opening chapters we see a man who functions because he feels compelled to live out of duty and responsibility, but not a man who wants to live. Even though he is surrounded by people who care for him deeply, Galharrow seems to remain in a tight ball of diffused but always present pain, separated from others by an invisible barrier. While Nenn and Tnota remain a constant, reassuring presence at Galharrow’s back, Ryhalt finds himself working more and more with a skilled strategist, Valiya, who clearly has feelings for him, and taking care of an orphaned girl, Amaira, who clearly treats him more like a father figure than a legal employer. As clear as the situation is for the reader, however, Galharrow lives in denial, within his own bubble of misery.
But the most anticipated return of the book is Saravor. By the end of Blackwing Saravor was the biggest unsolved mystery, a decidedly unsavory and dangerous individual the extent of whose powers and the shape of whose allegiances remained unknown. Was he an unwilling ally, or maybe Galharrow’s secret enemy? Ravencry puts Saravor in the limelight, and what a delightfully creepy villain he makes! I’m of the opinion that Saravor is actually a much better villain than the Deep Kings, with McDonald seems to struggle a fair bit; the Deep Kings, reminiscent of Lovecraftian Old Ones, just like Crowfoot and his peer Nameless seem too far removed from the everyday life of human beings. While there are hints that Nameless were once human, that time has passed so long ago that they don’t seem to have retained any human characteristics – maybe except for grumpiness and spite 😛 Saravor, on the other hand, is very much human; with his thirst for power, his ambition and hubris, his offhand cruelty, and his glimmering, glowing malice, he retains enough humanity to know where to hit to hurt the most. So when dead people start cropping up, seemingly alive again, and strange, Frankensteinian figures can be seen on the streets, Galharrow – and we with him – can be pretty certain that Saravor is making his big move.
To complete the picture, I have to say a few words about the Bright Lady. Believed by many in Valengard to be a new goddess, a female shape made of light makes more and more frequent appearances. The moods are volatile and the need to believe again after years and years of dreary monotony of survival runs amok among those living so close to Misery and what it represents. No wonder then, that the Bright Lady becomes at once a symbol of hope and a sign of apocalypse to the poor, bereaved, angry and hurting. The readers anticipate the true nature of the Bright Lady, and the emotional payoff of the concluding scenes is well worth the elaborate setup – at the same time offering a glimpse into the plot of the next installment, Crowfall.
Generally, the religious and political themes run strong in McDonald’s second installment of Raven Mark trilogy, and while I’d love to say I enjoyed them immensely, I can’t. For one, Galharrow was, for various reasons, too far removed from the city’s upheavals to give us a decent account of them. Through his eyes we see the game plan, and the pawns, and the moves, but the stakes just seem unreal, artificial, without any noticeable emotional weight; more an elaborate tool to crank up the pressure on our protagonist than a full-fledged class-based revolt. And secondly, the situation in the city was too abstract and complex to be properly represented by a single POV, and with only a few characters truly involved, most of them new and not overly important, it ultimately remained without consequence. I saw some echoes of Savonarola’s revolt in Valengard, but only superficial, without much of the substance that made Renaissance Florence so fascinating a subject. In short, I’d characterize Valengard’s situation as “too many pieces and not enough time to set them right”, because in McDonald’s case lack of skill doesn’t seem to be an issue. However, as the Valengard revolt and religious mania consumed a lot of pages, they ultimately resulted in uneven pacing and some structural problems for the whole novel.
But enough of criticism, let’s move to praise 🙂 My favorite part of the novel was Galharrow’s journey through Misery. I said before that McDonald’s worldbuilding in Blackwing seemed far too generic, and in Ravencry he more than made up for it. Misery becomes a character in its own right, and as Bible-based desert journeys go, Galharrow got a wonderfully nasty – and revealing – one. Ryhalt himself might not know it yet, but the Misery taint – or blessing – he acquired during his forced pilgrimage started him on a path to become something else altogether.
Finally, Nenn. Nenn’s journey was a perfect one, her story arc wonderfully grim and hopeful at once, brutal, violent, bloody, and heart-wrenchingly romantic. The theme of second chances is played very skillfully here, the arcs of Galharrow and Nenn mirroring and diverging and coming back in a deeply satisfying finale. Was it predictable? Yes, but in a surprisingly agreeable way: a perfect conclusion, set up way back in the beginnings of the first book, when both characters were only starting to become real in the reader’s mind. One other minor quibble I had was Amaira’s fate; in here, the predictability was a bit more discomfiting, as the worn trope used by McDonald somehow undermined the emotional weight of her presence throughout the book for me. And yet, it is a minor quibble indeed, for I had a blast reading Ravencry and expect a similar load of fun from Crowfall.
Lastly, those covers are gorgeous! If Crowfall lives up to my expectations, I’ll be buying the whole trilogy one day 🙂