REVIEW: Blackwing – Ed McDonald

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Author: Ed McDonald (website  / twitter)

UK Publisher: Gollancz

Genre: Fantasy, dark fantasy

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard’s paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.

The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall’s ‘Engine’, a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery – a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Mans Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic’s defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic’s bluff.

If ever there were a case of someone turning up 15 minutes late with Starbucks, it’s me finally getting around to reading Blackwing after the final book, Crowfall, has just been published. I was interning at Gollancz when Blackwing was released, two years ago this month, and remember helping at YALC as Ed and his amazing publicist Stevie were showing off the custom Blackwing cupcakes they were taking around London to give to booksellers. I didn’t get a cupcake (and I still think about them regularly because they looked AMAZING), but I did get the book. And it sat on my shelf staring at me until I got a copy of Ravencry a year later. And then they stared at me together. When Crowfall came out I figured it was probably time to get my act together.

There are a lot of things I really loved about this book. I adored the setting of this frontier fort-city on the edge of a demonic wasteland. All the demons and creatures gave me the perfect kind of chills, from the childlike but over-powered Darlings, to the Brides which glut themselves on sex and use that to control humans. The Drudge are nightmarish, faceless, mindless puppets, and frankly I thought the Gillings – horrible little cannibalistic creatures which only repeat set human phrases but will eat you alive – were utterly repugnant in the best way. I loved the magic structure, the way light is ‘spun’ from the moon by people, and used as a power source, or a weapon. I really loved the idea of two opposing sides of super powerful magic-users – Magicians (good, just about, in the grand scheme of things, but largely selfish and disinterested in humanity) and the Deep Kings (definitely bad, definitely, definitely bad). I also loved how each of them had their own unique style, like some kind of magic pop group (“this one is the bird one, this one is the water one, this one is the dead one, and this one is… the science one”). That sort of thing is exactly my aesthetic and I wanted more.

Despite this, I struggled to settle into the rhythm of the book, and it took me until about three quarters of the way through to work out why. Taking the two super powers pitted against each other (Magicians and Deep Kings), the all-powerful weapon which destroys all life as we know it (Nall’s Engine), and the fact that there is constant suspicion that the Deep Kings have infiltrated the city, the government, mixed in the campaigns of misinformation, silence and assassination – what you have is a Cold War thriller, but set in a fantasy world. I’ve never been very good at thrillers, I find the convoluted layers of subterfuge and betrayal quite stressful so I think I psychologically disconnect from characters that have the potential for being double-agents to save myself the heartbreak. For example, I never thought Hans was up to any good in Frozen, and frankly I thought Bing Bong was shady AF in Inside Out (so that suggests a 50% success rate for my judgement). My husband was outraged when North By Northwest (“one of the greatest films of all time!”) left me cold, but literally everyone Cary Grant meets is setting up to kill or betray him, how does one start rooting for that? My brain gets stressed and overwhelmed – and the higher up a power structure the conspiracy goes, the more stressed I get – until it just goes “You know what? Nope.” And shuts down the caring. It’s a defence mechanism of sorts, I suppose.

Blackwing is an epic book, setting up an epic war across a trilogy. The first book of any series like this is always slightly slow as it is loaded with information to give you the world. I would have loved to have spent more time with the background characters like Nenn and Tnota, or exploring the beasts and horrors of the Misery. Instead there was a taut line of politics, bureaucracy, and deciphering personal motivations. Ed manages to keep his cards close to his chest – there were twists I couldn’t have predicted, but which made so much sense when they occurred. You can also read his expertise in armoury and medieval combat (Ed fences and is an enthusiast of period weaponry) in any of the fight scenes and descriptions of armour and clothing. All his characters dress for practicality in combat, there are little details jammed into there so you know he knows his stuff, it feels authentic. There’s also a lot of diversity in the book for such a small cast, and all the women are different flavours of strong and impressive.

The book ended with a game-changer, which suggests that Ravencry could be structurally very different. It takes the characters on a journey further into the Misery, which I think means I’ll get to see more of the things I love – creepy creatures and sinister monsters – and spend more time with the characters rather than them fighting and finagling political artifice. Blackwing is such a big, robust, ambitious book, I can absolutely see why it made the waves it did. What it came down to was that it just was tonally a bit wrong for me. That’s definitely not Ed’s fault, I think that just happens sometimes. But I can definitely think of people who would adore it, and I’m looking forward to moving to book 2 for more of the parts I loved.

Briefly:

  • A tense and fluent political thriller in a fantasy world – think the Cold War, but with additional fantasy horrors woven into the narrative, adding some delightfully random jeopardy to the tension of the politics.
  • It’s very dark and grim (by my standards at least), and even a happy ending isn’t really happy in any other context, it’s just… not as bad as it could have been? I’m not entirely used to that sort of ending, although more of the books I have read in the last year doing this blog have widened my understanding.
  • I think if you like thrillers and you like complex fantasy, this book is definitely for you. It’s a challenging book, but I think it’s worth the work.

Rating: 4/5  – I could see there was so much in this book to be liked, and a lot that I liked! I hope Ravencry really lets me dig into this further and see more.

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