Review – Blackwing by Ed McDonald

By: Ed McDonald
Release Date: October 3, 2017
Publisher: Ace Books
Series: Raven's Mark #1
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)

Ed McDonald explodes onto the scene with the strongest debut novel I have read all year. Blackwing is the first novel in a new series featuring a world torn apart by a war that cannot be won against creatures who cannot die.

The Deep Kings have waged war on the world for longer than anyone can remember, held back only by the power of the wizards and the weapon they wield. The Engine is the most powerful weapon ever made, a weapon which destroyed a Deep King, but also created a scorched, uninhabitable land inhabited only with monsters called The Misery. Despite this weapon, the humans are losing. Most of the wizards are either dead or missing. As the right hand of one of the last wizards standing disguised as a mercenary, Ryhalt Galharrow embarks on a new mission, one given to him by his long absent master. The supposed peace the Engine has bought humanity is tenuous, rumors abound in the city, and, it seems, the Ryhalt’s god-like benefactor’s are on the move once more.

Blackwing is an excellent grimdark fantasy. The world is dark. Its history is rich and detailed. The characters nuanced and historied. This by no means feels like a first novel.

Not a single section of this novel felt info-dump-y. The world building and lore was well integrated into the narrative. Simple conversation, overhearing things, and natural plot progression served some particularly excellent and well placed world building. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of it – this is a high fantasy novel. Of course there is a lot of world building. But at no point did it feel like the plot came to screeching halt in order to regale the reader with the history of the world.

The main character, Ryhalt, is a haggard individual. Years of hardship have taking a toll on him. This is a man who has battlefield experience during active wartime, has failed that military career, a love life that has failed in every aspect, and is currently serving an all-powerful master who may or may not be slowly losing his mind. None of his hardships felt unwarranted, and the blatant alcoholism is understood though not condoned. Terrible things have happened to this character, yet he is also partially to blame. There are roads untraveled, things mentioned in conversation or in his head to the reader which must be deduced in a sense. This is a first person narration, after all, and some of the fault and reason blurs, the character not accepting certain things and not relaying certain events in full detail until later within the novel.

I liked this aspect. As far as personal history goes, the Ryhalt isn’t a completely reliable narrator, or rather, he is reliable in that he won’t tell the reader everything. Secrets he keeps are also kept from the reader. I found this a fascinating use of prose. The things he doesn’t talk about and doesn’t want to talk about are so buried that we do not even hear them mentioned aloud in his head. The lack of certain explanations stood out in comparison to everything the main character would relate to the reader or ponder on his own.

Unlike other high or epic fantasy series which draw from medieval times, this book is not the male-centric field that some (many) of its compatriots are. Not only is this refreshing, it also makes sense in-world. Society exists, still, but it is driven to the boarders of the world. Decades upon decades of war have emptied coffers. This is not the first time the Deep Kings have been fought, either. This is a recurring problem, and issue that was buried (literally) and broke free. Women are a part of the military, found both within the lower casts of the army and amongst the high ranking officials. Prince seems to be a title reserved for station rather than gender as well. Even in the taverns where the main characters goes to hire potential members for missions into the Misery there are plenty of women looking for work, and not as the wenches and bar maids we normally see them as.

The group of characters we follow may be best defined as a motley crew. These are, like our main character, individuals hardened by years of war and life on the edge of the Misery. The group is, by and large, edging towards the older side. Some of them have stuck around with Ryhalt for many years, with great experience in the Misery and knowing, or guessing, whose bidding he’s really doing. I really liked his crew. It was a very diverse group of people, many of whom are edging towards the older side for a mercenary.

There is a certain amount of realism within Blackwing which isn’t often found within other fantasy. The best example of this, I think, is how wounds are treated within the text. Many of the novels I’ve read, whether they are within the fantasy genre or not, treat wounds with an air of magic. Terrible stab wound that’s been bleeding for the past two chapters? As soon as they get to a healer, poof! They’re stiff and sore but perfectly fine. This, of course, is not at all true to life. Blackwing never falls into this trap. This is the only novel I can think of off the top of my head that takes things such as infection into account. When someone gets wounded it’s a big deal. The characters never shrug wounds off as if it they nothing but a device to amp up the tension in a scene. This is a world with medicine, but not modern day medicine. What medicine they do have isn’t always at their fingertips. This is something I respect. It’s easy to use magic to fix things. It’s harder to maintain this sense of realism, especially when it can adversely affect characters so quickly and easily.

The book threw me for a few loops I honestly didn’t see coming. Now that I’ve finished it, I want to read it all over again knowing what is to come. The twists the book took never felt out of place. Everything was there, subtly hinted at, but simply wasn’t always something I picked up on while reading.

Blackwing by Ed McDonald is a book that I really enjoyed. I am very much invested in the characters and story. You can be sure that I’ll be reading on with the next book in the series whenever it releases. If you like dark fantasy this is a book I highly recommend.

About author

Kathleen Townsend

Kate writes things, reads things, and writes about things she reads. She’s had a few short stories published, and works as a freelance editor. Favorite genres include epic & high fantasy, science fiction, time travel stories, video game related tales, light novels, and manga.

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