Quick Review: BLACKWING by Ed McDonald (Gollancz/Ace)

A promising debut grimdark fantasy

You think you know Misery? You’ve not seen anything yet…

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.

Blackwing is one of the most hotly-anticipated debut fantasy novels of the year. Social media and the blogosphere have been filled with glowing reviews, squees and other evidence that suggests the hype has been entirely justified. There’s a lot in here that will certainly appeal to plenty of fantasy fans. However, I ultimately came away from this novel underwhelmed.

McDonald has created an interesting world, one devastated by a war between the Nameless and the Dead Kings — powerful, immortal (but not invulnerable) beings with little concern for regular folk. They are aloof, indifferent to the fates of their servants, and demanding. Galharrow is a tool of Crowfoot. At the beginning of the story, it has been five years since Crowfoot last contacted Galharrow, but over the course of this novel he contacts him a couple of times. Crowfoot communicates via a raven tattoo that can tear itself from Galharrow’s arm in a bloody, painful way. (It is not clear to me why it is a raven tattoo, and not a crow. Or why the Nameless isn’t “Ravenfoot”, to at least match up the black birds in use. This is just one inconsistency that seemed really easy to fix…)

McDonald has a gift for penning good one-liners, and there were a handful that I made a note of while reading. Here are two examples:

“A generous man might call my troop of cutthroats soldiers. Generous men are generally idiots.”

“They saw me. I looked at them. A mutual feeling that we were not friends asserted itself.”

McDonaldE-RM1-BlackwingUSIn general, McDonald’s writing is very good. His descriptions of the world are pretty sparse, which I enjoyed (excessive worldbuilding is tedious). However, this brevity was not deployed when it came to Galharrow’s navel-gazing. Too often, it felt like the novel was constructed out of short burst of action and plot-moving, interspersed by somewhat vague, uninteresting self-reflection. Despite all of this, I nevertheless didn’t really connect with Galharrow or any of the characters. They all had potential to be really interesting, gripping personalities; but this was never realized on the page. I’ve been trying to figure out why this is the case, but I can’t put my finger on it. There are interesting goings-on, and the ending is pretty interesting as a fantasy concept. But here, too, the potential epic-ness of events was never delivered. The ending was underwhelming. The inevitable relationship between Galharrow and Ezabeth Tanza was predictable, rather uninteresting.

really wanted to like this novel. Not only because it sounded great, but seeing how everyone else was talking about it gave me hope that it might knock me out of my fantasy funk. (Long-time readers of CR might have noticed that there have been very few fantasy reviews over the past few years.) Ultimately, however, I thought the novel was… just fine. There’s nothing wrong with it, necessarily, but there’s nothing that made me stop and think, “Ah, now I see why everyone’s gushing over this.” I’m interested in reading the second novel, but I can’t say that I’m waiting with bated breath.

“From the publisher who brought you Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson and Scott Lynch…” is prominently printed on the British ARC. This was a bold gambit. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t make such a blunt comparison, but the inclusion of those words on the ARC guaranteed that I would read Blackwing with those authors in mind. For me, Blackwing just doesn’t match up to Abercrombie, Rothfuss and Lynch. (I haven’t read enough of Sanderson’s work to compare.) Each of those three is a superior storyteller and prose-writer, and their debuts are truly spectacular.

I’m sure many fantasy fans will enjoy this (indeed, many, many reviewers already have). For me, though, I’ve read better.

*

Blackwing is out now in the UK, published by Gollancz; it is due out in North America in October, published by Ace Books.

Also on CR: Interview with Ed McDonald

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Review copy received from the publisher

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