Written by Ed McDonald. RRP £8.99. 392pp
Out now from Gollancz Publishing.
Ever had your day ruined with a terrible work assignment? Well, surely it pales when compared to jaded and battle-scarred mercenary Captain Ryhalt Galharrow who, instead of a passive-aggressive email from a middle manager, is entrusted with a perilous quest from his supernatural superior Crowfoot, delivered in the form of a raven bursting from his arm and spouting cryptic commands. This throws our hard-drinking protagonist into the midst of a seemingly futile war in Ed McDonald's entertaining and imaginative, albeit sometimes overstuffed, début fantasy novel BLACKWING.
The world of the novel has been decimated by a war between two sets of magical beings; the morally ambiguous (but comparatively good) The Nameless and the unambiguously evil Deep Kings-with humans caught bang in the middle. One such human Galharrow, along with his two close comrades Nenn, a feisty and insubordinate warrior woman without a nose and Tnota, a warm natured and horny old guy, get embroiled with a childhood flame of Galharrow's Ezabeth Tanza, and her search to uncover a dangerous conspiracy at the heart of the ruling classes. Ezabeth is a powerful sorcerer with the ability to stop crossbow bolts in mid-air and cure drunkenness (but alas not hangovers) and, to complicate matters, Galharrow still has feelings for her. What follows are plenty of twists and turns including massacres at cultist sex parties, a thesis written in human faeces on an asylum ceiling, back-stabbings (both literal and metaphorical) and more fun fantasy concepts than you can shake a hobbit at.
However, this brings us to one of the novel's weaknesses. There are too many new concepts, too much vague world-building, introduced at the beginning to the extent that I felt mostly alienated and confused during the opening chapters. Even before finishing the first page we hear about 'gillings','dulchers' and 'The Misery' without a clue as to what any of this means. There's not a lot of help in easing you into the world. It's almost as if McDonald has jammed every single unique fantasy word and concept that has ever crossed his mind into the opening without leaving you space to breathe.
To be fair I am not an avid fantasy reader, so this may have been more problematic for me than it would be for those more versed in this type of fiction and, in spite of my initial reservations, the novel does eventually hit its stride after a few chapters and the plot, and the world, becomes much clearer.
McDonald has a great imagination, and he's conjured up some genuinely excellent creations. The Misery, the dangerous monster filled the no-mans land, is a wonderfully evocative setting. The concept of personal ghosts conjured from memories following you around there is effectively creepy albeit perhaps underused. The gillings, mutated creatures residing there that enjoy chewing people's feet off while they sleep, are fantastically disturbing; 'naked, pot-bellied and red as a raw burn'. Their language consists of a set of 6 meaningless phrases such as 'Evening, master, care for a good time which they say in random rotation. A later ominous call back to one of these catchphrases is a spine-tingling and genuinely haunting moment.
I found myself liking all the central characters. There's a sweet engaging relationship between Galharrow and his friends, replete with plenty of bawdy banter, helping you to care about all of their eventual fates. Saravor, the unscrupulous magic healer, deserves special mention as a memorably sinister supporting character with his workshop containing 'jars of ageing meat' and his way of chasing up debts that involves sending talking bird heads, then escalating to a talking severed human head, delivered by his cabal of mute orphans.
Overall, BLACKWING is a sometimes shaky début, but one that shows promise. The first in The Raven's Mark series and I'm interested to see where it goes as I feel that McDonald has hit his stride and has much more to offer.
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