Ed McDonald, Crowfall (2019)


Author: Ed McDonald

Title: Crowfall

Format: Paperback

Pages: 454

Crowfall is the final installment in Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark trilogy – though, to be fair, the ending does seem to imply a return to the broken world of Deep Kings, Nameless, and Misery. Where Blackwing was a powerful, riveting debut, and Ravencry even upped the ante, delivering one of the best middle books I’ve read, Crowfall concludes the story of Ryhalt Galharrow in a deeply satisfying way. That is not to say it is without its flaws, and you can count on me for detailing them all 😀

But first things first. Six years after the events of Ravencry we find Galharrow changed in more ways than one. Living alone out in the Misery, ruthlessly self-sufficient and accompanied by ghosts, Ryhalt is a man driven by a single purpose: to free the love of his life, Ezabeth Tanza, from the light she had been imprisoned in for the last decade – at all costs. At least that’s what he thinks – his friends and the patchwork family he’d created over the years seem to have a bit different conceptions of Galharrow’s impeding fate. And it is impeding indeed, for as Galharrow changed, the world around him was transformed even more. From the time of an event known as Crowfall, when thousands of carrion birds fell down the sky with burned out eyes, Dortmark became an even less pleasant place to live. Plagued by magical nastiness in various forms – from bloodthirsty, carnivorous geese to black rains bringing madness, to disappearance of color orange, and to Saplers – little mandrake-like creatures sapping the life-force from their hosts and slowly acquiring their hosts’ characteristics.


This new, unfriendly Dortmark, is where Galharrow must go once again – forewarned by one of Nall’s remaining avatars of another upcoming battle in the never-ending war between Deep Kings and Nameless, Ryhalt returns to the Valengard to implement the long-brewing plans of his own. The road to truth – and closure – will be more dangerous and demanding than ever, however, as schemes and strategies of all involved parties are revealed, brutally clash and become something else altogether. Old foes resurface, new threats abound, and Galharrow once again finds himself outmatched, outgunned – but not outfoxed. Though, to be fair, his thickness this time around was only matched by his perseverance, and I was exasperated more than once.

The story of Ryhalt Galharrow seems to me in many ways a heartfelt tribute to two narratives particularly close to my own heart: Robin Hobb’s Fitz and Fool, and Glen Cook’s Black Company. Galharrow in many aspects is a psychological reincarnation of FitzChivalry Farseer – from his stubbornness, resilience, occasional bouts of self-pity and… there’s no way around it, sometimes really amazing levels of stupidity, to the way he, despite perceiving himself as a self-made man, is in fact shaped by the relations he forms with his significant others – heck, even all the way to the patchwork family he’d created over the years. And the Black Company sigil is stamped all over the worldbuilding of Raven’s Mark – from the Misery itself to the “band of brothers” theme pervading all three books, up to “don’t trust your masters” adage, conscious appreciation of moral values in the face of moral ambivalence, gritty characters and the glorious, gory penchant for last stands. Obviously, none of the above characteristics is unique to the narratives I mentioned – but their conflation seems significant and immediately brings to mind these inspirations. And while I’m usually a staunch advocate of originality, being wary of old tropes in general, I readily admit they work brilliantly here, mixed with unique McDonald’s style, delightfully twisted storyline and fully developed characters.

I loved the role assigned to Misery in Crowfall, and the way McDonald toyed with the concept of becoming what you eat. I also enjoyed the whole “change and change again” theme, though I wished for a bit more exploration of the relation between chaos and change. The ascension theme was played well, and all twists and turns were firmly rooted in the overall narrative structure, which made for a very satisfying read. I truly appreciated McDonald’s effort to create the best possible sendoffs for each of the old crew – many of those scenes were touching and filled with unexpected tenderness, a welcome break in the gritty resolution grinding everything in its road to grand finale.

There were a few things that didn’t work for me, however. Firstly, McDonald’s concept of guilt. It may be a very personal thing, but the meaning of words, and their context, hold deep significance for me. The way McDonald used “guilt” in Crowfall seemed misplaced, as the emotions he described by this word would have been much better served by a reference to a different concept or concepts – the feeling of crushing responsibility derived from care for others, the deep need for atonement and recompense rooted in the overarching notion of fairness. Guilt just doesn’t seem to even scratch the surface and, ultimately, seemed misleading to me – a disfavor to Galharrow who, for all his outward simplicity, over the course of three books had evolved into a very multi-layered character and deserved a more complex explanation.

Secondly, the concept that seems to gain popularity in recent times, for I keep seeing it more and more often – that if you suffer long enough and go through enough hardship, you will be rewarded by a mystical rewind of the “lost years”, at least where your body is concerned. It’s another of concepts I have initially encountered in Hobb’s novels, but there it had its logic, deeply rooted in the internal workings of her world – and she actually very deftly subverted the trope, letting us appreciate the marks life leaves on us all. Here, it seems like a bit of lazy handwavium, unfortunately. I’m all for happy ever-afters, but do they really require godlike body??

Finally, the first conclusion, which seemed like a direct reference to the ending of Hobb’s Tawny Man Trilogy , was for me completely out of place, grating at basically every level – a stab at “what if”, I guess, or maybe an alternate ending that had been included nevertheless? In such a gritty, realistic world as depicted in Crowfall, already on its path to industrial revolution, and stylistically firmly rooted in noir, it would work brilliantly as a dying man’s final hallucination, but not reality. Simply speaking, the level of wish-fulfillment it offered sounded false. Thankfully, McDonald succeed it with an infinitely more fitting conclusion, one that allowed me to close the book with a contended sigh :).

Reading Crowfall was a blast and I enjoyed it immensely, having devoured it in one day. While there were couple of flaws detracting from my overall reading pleasure, all the more irritating for the fact that they could have been easily avoided, it was nevertheless a great experience. I can recommend Raven’s Mark series not only to all military fantasy enthusiasts pining for their dose of Black Company, but also to all who enjoy intricate storylines involving well-crafted, believable characters living in a wonderfully nuanced fantasy worlds.

Lastly, the cover is gorgeous as ever and I fully intend to buy the whole set in hardcovers 😉

Score: 8/10

46 thoughts on “Ed McDonald, Crowfall (2019)

    1. LOL, I knew that would grab your attention 😉 I think you might really enjoy it, provided you’re ok with the whole ascension thing – but it’s not so different from the Malazan world, so should be good. And, provided you can stand a bit of self-loathing and stubborn stupidity of the main protagonist (but it’s nicely played against the cast of supporting characters, so even though it was irritating at times, it wasn’t a big thing) 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Knowing those things are coming helps a lot. This is just another in a string of good reviews for this final book, and this series. I’ve added it to my tbr, so in a year or two it’ll get added to my reading rotation 🙂

        Glad you had such a good time with the whole trilogy. Nothing worse than the final book bombing, so it is nice to see that didn’t happen 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Will be waiting for your review 🙂

          It was a very solid conclusion, maybe a tad sweeter and easier than I expected, but all in all very satisfying.

          I agree, there’s nothing worse than a letdown of a conclusion to a sequence, leaves bad taste in your mouth 😉 Nevertheless, I still think I enjoyed the second book the most, a bit like Empire Strikes Back in the original SW trilogy 😀 😀

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😀

      I’m picky, what can I say 😉
      But seriously, I am a very critical reader – just ask Piotrek 😉 We’ve had so many discussions about the “having fun” approach 😀
      And I agree, having fun reading and being swept away in the world created on the pages is a huge part of the enjoyment, but not the only part. When I read, my mind keeps analyzing the plot, the structure, the characters and worldbuilding etc. – so I take it inevitably all into account when I judge a book. Aaand I tend to formulate strong opinions 😉 Guilty as charged! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I also can’t just read for fun. If an author leaves glaring holes in the plot then said holes will be torn open in a review.

        There was a period where all I seemed to read was 1 or 2 star reads and I feel my frustration came through in places 😂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, I know exactly what you mean! 😂
          I tend not to review too many bad books/movies, because I don’t like thrashing stuff which someone else devoted so much time to create… But sometimes it really can’t be helped 😛 Plus, I was told my scathing reviews bring joy to some readers 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  1. piotrek

    Well, now I really think I need to read it, if the entire trilogy is that good 🙂 and if the author chose inspirations that good. It also reminded me I need to finally read all the Hobb books I have on my shelf 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Question for you Pio.

      I did a bit of housecleaning, in terms of deadwood followers and trimmed maybe 5-10. I got an email this morning saying you had started following me. At first I thought I had accidentally deleted you but then when I got on wordpress, I couldn’t find ANY notification about you following me.
      Did you just start following me, again, or is WordPress just acting up?


      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        I just set up an email notification, as I’ll be traveling for work for a few weeks and might not have time for regular visits. With emails I won’t miss any posts 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

          1. You want to buy the whole series in hardcovers because they’re beautiful? I agree to the fact that they’re beautiful, but I don’t believe that you should buy a book because of its ornamental value. The only books I have a hard copy of, are those I keep consulting and re-reading. The others get a place in my virtual Kindle library. Just a question of not cluttering up my study.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I’m totally with you on this!

              I actually buy books only when I enjoyed them so much I know I’d like to revisit them or push them on other people 😉 Or, I have to buy a physical copy because I have no other way of obtaining them. I mostly buy books relevant for work these days, so when I find a fiction book or series I enjoy and I know I’d like to come back to it in a few years, I’m willing to splurge 😉

              Liked by 1 person

    2. Oh yes, Hobb and BC! 😀

      But I think you’d enjoy Raven’s Mark very much, actually. Lots of things you like and appreciate, and while the battle scenes are not breath-taking, they’re still solid and very imaginative. Plus, the setting is very intriguing, cusp of magically-enhanced industrial revolution mixed with Renaissance mindset 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You haven’t read the Black Company? Bormgans (by the way, I’m always pronouncing your name born jams and think of blackberry jam every time I see your name), you NEED to read BC. I’ll let the other 2 do the serious fan’ing, but seriously, make it a priority…

      Liked by 2 people

            1. Well, sounds like you need Bookstooge’s Patented Reading Organizer!

              However, I would recommend moving Cook and his Black Company books up the priority ladder. Much worthier of being read than that hack Blake Crouch and his completely recycled ideas 😉

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I’m finishing that today. Worthless book. Dark Matter was great, but this new one is terribly inconsistent. Looking forward to panning it. Review should be up before the end of the week…

                Liked by 2 people

                1. Cool! I have Dark Matter on my shelf and I’m looking forward to reading it, but did not hear many positive things about the newer one – will gladly read your take on it!


    2. Yes, but then, BC is for me superior to most of other books 😀
      This is fun, though. BC was in my opinion a much more mature work, more aware of and more steeped in the philosophy/politics/social undercurrents of the Vietnam War and its consequences. By the end, it transforms into a more straightforward fantasy/SF, but the ethical/historical/social component is still very much present.

      I would love to get your opinion on it, seeing as you like Bakker 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I plowed through book 1, and though I found the worldbuilding impressive, I couldn’t stand the main character for his absolutely record-breaking Mary Sueism – I also didn’t like the story for the better part of the book, and I hated the underlying philosophical assumptions as well 😉
          I’d probably write a much more scathing review of this now than I did back then, as it left a bad taste in my mouth 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  2. When that first Sapler was found, I had a good laugh at how pitiful his buddy was hahaha Fantastic review, Ola. I am incredibly happy to see how much you enjoyed this and even more impressed by the flaws you point out. I mean… now I’m curious to know what are your top, flawless, books are. Where can I get a list of those books? 😀 Then again, I can’t blame you for noting those issues. You have read a lot of great fantasy books, Hobbs and Cook being the obvious two that played a huge role here. I couldn’t notice that since I haven’t read ANYTHING from both of them… I have their books though. I should get around to diving into those as soon as possible.

    Man, I’m too curious to find out what Ed McDonald will be doing next. Again, fantastic review! I love reading your thoughts on… just about anything. 😛


    1. Thank you, Lashaan! 😀

      Hah, to the suggestion that I’m able to find flaws in anything – there actually are perfect books out there, and I have read and reviewed some of them 😛
      I might consider making a special tag for you, 10/10 or something like that 😛 And yes, several Hobb’s and Cook’s books are in that category, as well as a few comics and more than a few classics and non-SFF works 😉
      Yes, agree – I wonder if he’s planning to come back to Galharrow’s world anytime soon. The ending was open, and there’s still so much to explore! The origin of Nameless, nicely teased, but not elaborated. I pegged Nall more for a scientist obsessed with understanding the world than a con artist – too much benevolence in that Nameless for this profession 😉 Or I’d love to read more on the Lovecraftian origins of the Sleeper, and some elaboration on the very mythological fight with the sea serpent.
      Anyway, your kind words are much appreciated – as always 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my god, I adore you for mentioning Robin Hobb’s series. Fitz and Fool’s story is my favourite of all time and also one that’s very, very close to my heart. I still have Ravencry to read, but your comparison of Galharrow with FitzChivalry is super interesting and something I haven’t thought of (in book 1, at least), but I’m going to keep that parallel in mind when I get to the rest of the books.

    Wonderful, wonderful, review! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! 😊

      I found there’s a strong undercurrent of Hobb’s ideas from the Elderlings series in McDonald’s Raven’s Mark, but they indeed were more pronounced in later installments, especially in the third book. Not to spoil anything but there’s even a scene strongly reminiscent of the market fair from Hobb’s first Fitz and Fool trilogy.

      On the other hand, FitzChivalry is to me an epitome of a troubled, deeply self-aware and not a little self-pitying hero, who remains noble and fair against all odds and always strives to do the right thing – so I tend to compare other similar protagonists to him 😅


    1. Thank you, Lisa! 🙂

      There is a Lovecraftian vibe in it as well, a bit of body horror, though in very small doses, so not sure how you feel about that type of stuff. But the main protagonist’s voice is strong and clear, and for all the grimness of high fantasy/noir detective story there’s also a surprisingly heartfelt and sweet romance – more than one, actuallly, each done impeccably if understated (though, as you can expect, not many end with a happy ever after ;))

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s good to know. I’ll keep it in mind. Tbh my tastes are a little all over the place at times and while 98% of the time I’m probably not in the mood for this type of book there’s always that 2% period when I am lol. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Another great review for Ed McDonald – I am really looking forward to reading these books. 🙂
    I also laughed aloud reading some of the comments above – I also haven’t read Black Company, but I feel I need to remedy that asap! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😀 It’s a very good trilogy, nicely balanced in terms of action and character development, and while it remains faithful to most of the tropes it employs, it nevertheless feels fresh and energetic. I do hope you’ll enjoy it! 🙂


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