An Annotated Chapter of RAVENCRY by Ed McDonald (Gollancz/Ace)

McDonaldE-AuthorPicWhen I was asked to provide a first chapter critique of my own book, I thought that this was an excellent way to explain the way that my own writing craft works, and to point out the level of complexity that comes into play through many rounds of editing.

I think that I have to stress that the first chapter did not look like this at the end of the first draft. So many of the details, the events, even the character of Levan Ost, all changed multiple times during the editing process. These were the details and events that remained when the dust settled.

Throughout this text I’ve interrupted the narrative to point out why I made particular decisions. Everything in this chapter is a conscious choice, and hopefully I’ve been able to explain why I made some of them. Writing is a deeply personal and individual craft and no two people’s are the same. These were the right choices for me.

It should be noted that although there are no direct spoilers in my commentary, if you’ve not read RAVENCRY yet, then I will be pointing out particular details that are specifically of interest later in the book.




Levan Ost’s note insisted I come alone.

The first line has to do many things; hook a reader in, set the tone, and put us smack bang into the time and place. ‘Alone’ is a powerful word – we have a sense of vulnerability, we know who is present, and the note lets us know that there’s some kind of uncertainty afoot.

The clocks were poised to strike four as I approached the meeting point. The night carried a purplish cast, Rioque and Clada both waxing, unobscured by cloud. I stepped briskly through the winter cold. Hooded. Armed. Alert. The last time I’d met Levan Ost, he’d tried to shank me with a broken bottle. But that had been a long time ago and, truth be told, I’d probably deserved it.

The second paragraph sets the scene. I chose night, because night is when trouble happens. I chose 4am, because it’s the deepest part of night and adds to the sense of isolation and that help is unlikely to be at hand. I also wanted the streets to be clear of people and for the later outbreak of violence to conflict with the quiet.

The smell of the canal met me three streets before it came into view. The waterway was blacker than oil, the streets around it mostly deserted. Nobody wanted to live near that stench. Valengrad’s canals had never been fit for swimming in, but after the Siege, we’d tossed all the dead drudge into the canals to rot. Bad magic isn’t so easily washed away though, and the pollutants had stained even the water. Four years later, it still bore the memory.

Eew. If the environment is unpleasant and carries bad memories, it’s unlikely that pleasant things are going to happen there. Not quite a visual metaphor, but not that far off.

Ost wanted to meet on a barge docked along Canal Six. It was an old waterway on the western edge of Valengrad, out past the stacked rows of soldiers’ tenements.

They could have met in a house, but a barge is exposed – you know there’s nothing around it on a canal bank, and it’s simply more interesting. Each scene should be memorable – this scene stands out because of the location.

I passed barges loaded with cut stone, floated south for the ceaseless construction work on an immense phos mill being built in the Spills. Hundreds of tons of masonry sat low on the reeking water, waiting to become part of the Grandspire. Canal Six wasn’t one of the worst, but the stench still forced itself all the way to the back of my throat.

Life has continued in Valengrad, but the passage of time is noted. We need to bring the reader up to speed for Book 2. This also provides important foreshadowing for the Grandspire, and begins to familiarise the reader with its existence, which will be vital later on – I need readers to accept and be familiar with the Grandspire before we go there.

I paused in the deep shadows at the street corner. Narrow boats and barges were moored against the banks, cargoes lashed down tight. We’d suffered two quakes in the past week, and nobody wanted to fish spilled stone out of the polluted water. I watched silently from the shadows, let the minutes tick by. No need to be impatient.

The barges here are used to allow me to mention the quakes without just saying “there had been earthquakes” out of the blue. I find that the more I use environmental details to surreptitiously insert important background, the more natural it feels.

Nothing moved on the black water. The light tubes were dim, humming low. No sign of anyone on the decks and the barges were dark, empty by night, with only a single cabin window giving light. It had been a pleasure barge once, [important detail for later in the chapter, but is being disguised here as part of the environment] but hauled cargo through the indignity of its retirement. Forty feet long, bare deck. An odd place to lay a trap, if that’s what this turned out to be. I shifted the gear beneath my coat, but if you walk into a trap, it rarely matters if you’re armed [a reminder that Galharrow is highly experienced]. It was Ost’s name, our old association, that had brought me out here alone. My recruits would scowl and gripe [worldbuilding info to move us from book 1 to book 2 – he has recruits now – info disguised as inner thoughts about something else] if they saw me abandon the caution that I drilled into them, but the rules were for them, not for me.

I placed a hand beneath my coat, cocked the hammer on a flintlock pistol.


The black water took my words, flattened them.

A shadow appeared against the grime encrusted glass. A bolt grated as it was drawn back and then the cabin door opened. A gnarled and narrow figure was silhouetted against the cabin light.

‘Captain Galharrow?’ a gruff, smoker’s voice asked. ‘That’s what they call you now isn’t it? Wasn’t sure you’d come.’

Levan Ost looked like he’d been on lean rations for a year and then tumbled down a hillside, maybe more than once. He had an untidy, clubbed-together shape to his body, muscle slowly losing the battle with age. His beard was long, the colour of ashes, but his eyes were still keen. His face had a peppering of circular scars where he’d suffered from Misery-worm.

The Misery was a fan favourite in Blackwing – let’s get a mention of it in nice and early!

‘It’s good to see you, Levan,’ I said, although it wasn’t.

‘Come in. Letting the heat out,’ he said, and by the way he swayed as he turned I figured he was drunk. I had plenty of experience with drunks.

He didn’t look much like a threat. If he’d invited me here to end what his broken-glass assault had started all those years ago, he’d prepared badly. I eased the pistol lock slowly back to rest, though I didn’t take my thumb from it altogether as I climbed aboard.

Unlike the cargo boats filling most of the docks, the barge had been a luxury river cruiser once, the kind the nobility spent dainty afternoons drifting about on [important detail to get Galharrow out of a pickle later!]. Then had come debts, boredom, or the blackening of the canals, and its owner had either sold it or turned it to shifting fruit up and down the waterways to cut a profit.

‘Any crew aboard?’ I asked.


This very brief exchange reaffirms the sense of isolation, but it’s also just more fun to have the characters point out some of the details. Due to the first-person narration, Galharrow frequently has to make assumptions – he can’t know that there’s nobody else aboard without checking it all, so I had Ost state it instead.

The cabin was a simple room, twelve by twelve with a few worn chairs and an old-fashioned oil lamp hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Ost offered me a seat. I didn’t take it. He seemed unsure of himself, adjusted a few items on a simple table. A folio of papers and a bottle of wine, a vintage that spoke of neither wealth nor taste. An empty bottle stood beside it. Another lay on its side up against a wall. A basket-hilted broadsword lay scabbarded on the table. I didn’t think that Ost intended to use it on me but I wasn’t worried if he tried. He was old, he was out of shape and he was drunk.

Occasional details like the basket-hilted broadsword help to convey a sense of time and place without having to overstate it. The complex hilt of the sword tells the reader that we’re in a kind of 17thcentury+ environment, and the subconscious imagination fills in other details based on that, like costume. The sword also fits Ost’s workmanlike character; had it been a rapier, the reader might have taken a different view of him (more refined, maybe). By not being a firearm, it also reinforces that he’s down on his luck, and since Galharrow is packing a pistol, Ost can be seen to be taking precautions without posing a threat to our hero.

‘It’s been a long time,’ I said softly. In the deep night, some primal fear of the dark makes us favour hushed tones.

‘I suppose,’ Ost said. ‘Haven’t seen you since the day you fought Torolo Mancono.’ His voice had retained its self-assured roughness. He may have never held a rank above navigator, but that had still earned him respect and a place in the command tent. He’d never liked me, because he was common stock and I’d been born with cream for blood, and in fairness I’d been a cocky bastard.

‘Still bitter about that?’

Ost shrugged.

‘I always liked Mancono,’ he said. ‘He listened, even if he was born rich as a prince. You gave him a bad death, but I suppose you can’t shoulder all the blame. He asked for the duel.’

I hadn’t come to relive the past or settle old grievances.

By making Ost an old acquaintance, it’s easier to just skip to the story. Had he been a new acquaintance, Galharrow would not have taken him as seriously, as readily as he does and the dialogue would lag. A brief reminiscence about an old grudge also demonstrates just how severe the situation must be for them to be in contact.

‘You said you had information vital to Valengrad’s safety,’ I said.

‘Wine?’ Ost asked. The cups on the table were smudged with fingerprints so I probably shouldn’t have, but I took one all the same. I’m not one to turn down a smudged cup of worst-quality wine, no matter the hour or the situation.

Ost looked over my uniform. He noted the long, close-fitting black coat that fell to my knees, with its dual rows of silver buttons. He noted the raised silver wings stitched to the sides of the shoulders. Once, I’d sworn to never wear a uniform again, but time, money, and prestige make liars of us all, and this was a coat of my own colour. I let him look as I drank, and waited for him to speak.

Even though Galharrow is getting down to business, Ost isn’t. He’s reluctant to talk, uncomfortable, even if he asked Galharrow to come.

‘Looks like life’s treating you better than it has the rest of us,’ he said eventually.

‘Depends on your point of view.’

‘You got a nice operation going with Blackwing now, don’t you?’ A hint of resentment. Hard to describe Blackwing as nice; hunting down deserters, spies, traitors and the miserable bastards that the Cult of the Deep got their claws into hardly made me popular, and having to answer to Crowfoot was no tea-dance. ‘You’re on the up since the Siege, back in favour. Seems like the princes have thrown you a sack of gold to keep order around here and half the world’s afraid of you.’

Again, this is a bit of ‘what has happened in the time between Blackwing and Ravencry summarised in speech.’

‘Guilty consciences breed fear,’ I said. ‘Some people should be afraid.’

Ost nodded. He ran a hand over his balding scalp. He had to be sixty years old, maybe older. A proud man. It was taking him time to work up to whatever he needed.

‘I didn’t want to come to you, but you’re the only one I can trust with this,’ he admitted at last. The only reason you ask a man to come alone and at night is either you’re planning on killing him or you need something you’re too ashamed to ask for in the daylight. He hadn’t tried to kill me. Not yet, anyway.


‘Where to start?’ Ost said. He threw back his wine, bared his teeth, locked his jaw. ‘I got mixed up in something.

Something bad. The kinda thing you hang men for. I’ll tell it all. But I want a deal.’

‘You think I need to give you one?’

Ost’s chin jutted proud and raw. He wasn’t impressed and sure as hell wasn’t scared. He’d navigated the Misery for forty years, a lot longer than I had. Up close I could see the tiny green veins beneath the skin, little slivers of corruption that had taken up residence. He’d seen dulchers and skweams, he’d fought drudge and seen men evaporate into mist. I was just an ugly man with more grey in my beard than colour.

And here, we’re building in important foreshadowing for something that won’t come into play until around Chapter 20. It feels like it’s just a fun worldbuilding detail, but there’s some greater purpose in pretty much every one. In this way, a world both feels alive, and the bizarre and strange don’t feel so bizarre or strange when they come in later, as we’ve already seen them on a very minor scale.

‘It’s not for me. It’s for my daughter and her kid. If I run my mouth, I’m done for anyway, but my family are clean in all this. I want you to make them disappear, somewhere beyond the states. Hyspia or Iscalia. Somewhere they can’t be reached.’

Ost is in a bit of a state, and since we know he’s not on good terms with our hero, it’s hard for the reader to feel much sympathy for him. Introducing a child and grandchild serves three functions. One, it shows why he hasn’t just run away. Two, it ups the stakes for the reader. Three, it gives Ost a softer, more sympathetic side.

I watched him carefully, and figured he was telling the truth. Something about kids brings out the few remaining strings of sympathy on my bow.

‘What do they need protecting from?’ I asked.

The canal barge began to rock, slightly at first and then harder, rattling the shutters in the window frames. The wine bottle fell from the table with a smash as the boat rose and fell on sudden waves and glass streetlights cracked and shattered, dimming the banks. I gripped the table to stay upright.

The characters have been talking quite a while by this point. The earthquake both provides the basis for later plot revelations, and breaks up the exchange of information with a flash of physical drama.

‘Shit!’ Ost yelped as he lost his balance and fell hard.

A bunch of raincoats fell from their pegs to bury him in oilcloth.

The earth rumbled and groaned. Somewhere distant something unstable, something that was probably somebody’s home, collapsed with a crash. And then, with a growl, it was done, the tremor passing as quickly as it had risen. Ost ignored my hand, preferring to pick himself up.

‘Third earthquake in a week,’ I said. I didn’t like that.

Anything out of the ordinary is usually something to worry about. But, as Valiya had told me, even Blackwing couldn’t do much about the earth heaving.

Valiya is an important character through Ravencry. Her name-drop here means she’s less of a surprise in chapter 2.

‘Let’s go out on deck,’ Ost suggested. ‘I could do with a smoke and the barge owner gets pissy if I light it up in here.’

An excuse to go outside was needed so that the action could take place in the open.

‘Why are you living on a barge?’

Ost shrugged. ‘Cheaper than anywhere else, if you can tolerate the smell.’

Outside, the cold had left the air tight and brittle. Clada was starting to sink, giving way to Rioque, the purple light turning redder. The phos lights along the streets were set to one-third power and one of them sputtered, crackling at a bad connection.

The bad connection adds to tension. This is a place where not everything is working.

I lit up a pair of cigars and passed him one.

A gesture of understanding, if not of friendship.

‘Pol is innocent,’ Ost said. ‘She don’t even care to see me, lot of bad blood there. But I owe her.’

It seemed a fair trade.

‘You give me something heavy, I’ll see she finds a new life in some other city.’

Going into the next part was tricky. It’s important that Ost tells his story, but we need to stay in the current moment of danger and not get lost in a yarn. One of the hardest parts of first person narration is ensuring that your protagonist has everyone else’s information.

‘Good enough,’ Ost agreed. He took several heavy draws on his cigar. ‘I took a job. Misery work, navigating out with freelancers. They gave me false names, but a true location. A fixed point, Tiven’s Dale. You know it?’

I nodded. It was four days ride into the Misery, a place where the boulders were perfectly spherical. About as far as our regular patrols went, these days.

The boulders being spherical were, quite simply, a very easy way of getting a reader an immediate visual on a unique place. Tiven’s Dale is not an important location, but there had to be a meeting point.

‘They were well armed, heavy crossbows for the most part. Good armour too. Tough men. They had a pair of Spinners with them, and they were paying a lot – practically a pension. So I figure we’re going relic digging. I know, I know, that’s not legal. Misery contraband ain’t permitted, but collectors will sell their horse for an Adrogorsk goldmark. The money they were paying would have set Pol up real good.’


‘So. We get out there and I know there’s something wrong with the soldiers. They pitch up camp the first night, and none of ’em laugh. None of ’em joke. Just sit there, silent all night. You and I know that there’s little laughter to be had in the Misery, but what really got my goose? They weren’t scared neither.’

More foreshadowing for later, part of the mystery that will need piecing together.

‘Experienced men?’

‘They’re the ones that should be most scared. Only an idiot ain’t scared in the Misery.’ Ost said the name with care, like he was holding a wobbling candle over a bowl of blasting powder. There’s no power in the name, but only a fool disrespects it.

‘True enough.’

‘So we get to Tiven’s Dale and there are drudge there. I hit the dirt, thinking we’ve stumbled into some crazy long patrol, only the Spinners don’t unleash their magic on them, not even when I see there’s a Darling down there. Had to be, for all he was as changed as the drudge, and I ain’t never seen that before. Face like a fish, you know, but definitely a Darling. Had a fucking tail too, if you can believe that.

I needed a way to clearly identify that the Darling that Ost sees at Tiven’s Dale is the same Darling that we’ll meet later in the story, but also that didn’t require a lot of description that would break up Ost’s tale. A strange face and a tail do the trick. Additionally, I wanted to ensure that this Darling looks more devil than child later on due to certain events that would otherwise have been too dark.

Anyway, the Spinners, they go talk to him awhile. Then they come back and say we’re going back. That was it. They just talked to him, then we come back.’

Short of the Deep Kings they serve, there is no creature more bent on the destruction of humankind than a Darling. Even the mention of one is enough to make most soldiers reach for an amulet. Darlings commanded power far beyond that of our own sorcerers, a gift from their terrible masters.

‘Who were they?’ I said.

‘I don’t know.’ Ost said it slowly, as if I’d missed that detail. ‘They gave false names. Blue, Pikeworth, Dusky – sometimes they forgot what they’d called each other. They didn’t try and explain nothing, just kept telling me that there was more money than I’d ever need waiting for me back on the Range. They repeated it far, far too often. But after what I’d seen, I knew they wouldn’t let me live once the walls were in sight. Only needed me to navigate for them, right? So I abandoned them a day from the walls.

Left them there to rot. Maybe they’ll die out there. But I ain’t often that lucky.’

Fake names are important here. Ost wouldn’t have gone with men who gave no names, but it’s also important that he can’t identify them or the mystery fizzles pretty quickly.

‘So you can’t tell me who these mystery men are?’

‘No. But if they make it back, I can point them out to you. There aren’t that many Spinners.’ He shivered. ‘Only if I spill on their boss, he’ll get to me. The only time they showed any kind of emotion was when they mentioned him. Terrified of him. No doubt about that. And anyone that can terrify a Spinner sure terrifies me too. I’m a corpse on legs, Galharrow.’

‘Makes me wonder why you haven’t run.’

‘I’m going to run, believe me,’ Ost said. He sucked on his cigar, coughed a little when he took it down by mistake. ‘Far as I can, long and hard. Maybe I’ll get clear, who knows? I lasted this long.’ He sucked on the cigar again, quick, tense puffs. Even talking about it scared him.

‘So who’s the boss?’

‘A deal for Pol. Then I give you the name,’ he said. The cigar smoke drifted between us, catching the phos light, gleaming like oil.

‘I can pull strings, get your girl and her kid on a ship to one of the western colonies. They’re always crying out for women. If your information is good then you got my word on it.’

Galharrow has been his usual gruff, moody self until this point. He agrees to Ost’s plan, showing that he also has a softer side where innocents are concerned. This is important in engaging the reader’s sympathies.

Note also that at this point, the reader wants to know who Galharrow (and through him, the reader) is up against. The information gets dangled before both of them like bait on a line, building to the reveal, and then…

I was glad that in his final moments, I was able to give him that small amount of relief. He looked grateful, for all that he still hated me for killing Torolo Mancono.

Ost’s abdomen exploded outwards. Bits of offal and bone spattered the deck. It took me a moment to realise that he’d been shot. A small river of blood and pulped organs ran from his gut as he staggered across the deck. He looked up at me once before a flash from my left heralded the second shot. Not the crack-flash of matchlock fire but something else, something blue and gold, paired with the sound of a lightning strike. A second hole appeared between Ost’s ribs. He stumbled to his knees, mouth agape, eyes wide.

My arm stung where the shot had grazed me. That one had been meant for me.

I saw them coming as Ost collapsed, broken. Two men on the north bank, one more from the south. They had firearms, two with matchlocks, one packing something with a long silver barrel. That one took aim at me. The battle-rush came on hard.

I don’t like saying ‘adrenaline’ as Galharrow wouldn’t know what that was. ‘Battle-rush’ is used throughout Ravencry as a plausible substitute.

I hurled myself down between stacks of fruit crates. A matchlock boomed, and then chips of wood and pulped citrus fruit rained down around me. The bastards had me surrounded. I reached into my coat and produced both pistols, flintlocks, primed and loaded.

I heard voices as the assassins came closer, risked a glance out. They wore masks, simple things made from canvas sacks cut with eyeholes. Their military buff coats were standard issue, but that silver-barrelled weapon wasn’t. It was a flarelock, a handheld phos cannon, long made obsolete by matchlocks. Never expected to see one of those again.

The military hadn’t commissioned a flarelock in fifty years.

The flarelock is more interesting than just any old matchlock and adds depth and mystery to the attackers. The events with the flarelock here are also a bit of foreshadowing for chapter 38, and part of the mystery. Every detail is a layer in the greater whole, and sometimes serves more than one purpose.

Who were these people? A single glance at Ost confirmed he wasn’t going to do any more talking.

Me, alone and pinned. Three killers with firearms, closing for a kill.

Bad odds.

I say ‘Bad odds’ a lot. I just like it.

Voices. Too hard to make out with those muffling bags. I tried to make a move for the cabins and the flarelock roared again, spraying me with splinters as a crate exploded. I stayed put.

‘I am Blackwing Captain Ryhalt Galharrow,’ I yelled. ‘Throw down your weapons and surrender yourselves to me, or by order of the state you are fucking dead.’

I heard the muffled voices again, but they seemed in no mind to give up.

‘Give yourself up and you will be spared,’ a man called back. His voice was flat, emotionless.

I couldn’t leap for the bank. There were men on both sides and I’m a big, heavy target even when I’m not full of cheap ale and cheaper wine. No way I’d survive a dash down the street, either, if any of them were even half-competent marksmen. Nor was time on my side and as soon as one of them had a clear shot at me I was a goner. I thought it through, then took the only remaining option. Hunkered up to a spring position, counted one, two, three. Go.

I swung the pistols out and opened up, blasting off a shot in each direction, and then I ditched them and ran for the barge rail. The flarelock returned fire as I launched myself in what I intended as a graceful dive, but probably just meant slinging myself belly-down into the reeking canal.

I punched through an inch-thick layer of rubbery shite on the surface and then I was down in the ink.

I needed to get Galharrow out of the situation that I’d written him into, and this was much more fun than just having a straight up fight. It would have been possible, of course, for him to have just shot them, but I like characters to miss with their guns more often than they hit. Galharrow is not a superhero.

The cold hit me like a sledgehammer to the chest.

Freezing, bitter as deepest winter, and utterly dark. I went in with a lungful of air but the moment I hit that icy blackness I knew that it wasn’t enough. I kicked, tried to get myself turned around and suddenly had no idea which way I was facing. The water was slightly too viscous, a gravy of rotting drudge corpses and an echo of bad magic.

Which way was up? I opened my eyes and the filth-dark water burned them, so I closed them again and kicked hard and thought to myself, spirits of fucking mercy, the fucking indignity of it if I die like this. My head banged against something, maybe the barge, maybe a bank. It was there one moment and then as I thrashed around, gone again. Air. You take it for granted until it’s gone. Then you’d trade everything you’ve ever owned for just one more lungful. My chest screamed at me, and I couldn’t blame it. The cold gathered around me. The weight of the water bore me down.

Drowning is just about the scariest thing that I can think of. Drowning in the dark is even worse.

Blind, flailing, certain to be shot the moment I poked up into the night air I started to see lights dance before my closed eyes. Something hard met my foot and I stopped caring if I was shot. Anything was better than choking on this toxic slime.

I pushed away only to meet a hard, flat surface. No air that direction, and it wasn’t the bottom of the canal. I was trapped beneath something. Beneath the barge. My lungs convulsed as they fought to keep me conscious. My chest was collapsing in on itself, ribs aching to implode in an ignominious, silent death, out of sight of men and spirits.

My hand caught an edge. On reflex I punched up, through the filth and into clear air.

I broke the surface, gasped in a grateful, piercing breath. Not dead yet.

I’m a sucker for three-word, stand-alone sentences. They feel like the character’s inner voice to me.

I was in a dark room, dim light around the frame of a door. My eyes stung, the bad magic that had leaked from the drudge corpses burning like lime. I could taste the Misery at the back of my throat, like sickness, and salt, and suffering as I bobbed in the narrow hole, confused, until I realised I’d somehow gone under the barge and by sheer luck had come up through a privy in one of the cabins. The former owner had been too fine to shit over the side like a sensible man.

…lucky that we pointed out that this had been a leisure barge, right? As Garth says in Wayne’s World, “aren’t we lucky we were there to get that information? It seemed extraneous at the time.”

I’d never been so grateful to be neck deep in a shithole.

Events have been pretty bleak. A bit of wry humour keeps things light.

Heaving myself from the water was not easy. I was a strong bastard, but I was also big and heavy and the hole was small and the water was reluctant to let me go. The black filth clung to me like a great shiny leech, reluctant to retract until I undid the buttons on my coat and let it slide away into the darkness. Some kind of fortune was still with me: my sword was still in its sheath and with a blade in my hand, I never counted my luck done altogether.

No time to waste. Ost was dead, but the bastards that shot him surely knew what the fuck he’d been talking about.

They also had to assume that I’d perished in the canal after I didn’t come up. I could hide out. Go unnoticed. But the raven tattooed on my arm peered up at me impatiently. Crowfoot would boil my blood in my veins if I let a plot this big go. Spinners negotiating with Darlings. It was unthinkable. And while he may have let me be for some time you do not, under any circumstances, fail a wizard who can melt mountains. Time to get moving. Time for answers.

Galharrow is about to betray one of the rules he puts forward in Blackwing – that he shouldn’t fight outnumbered. He has the option to just hide out, now that they think he’s dead. His actions require plausible justification and fear of Crowfoot gives that.

Past the shitter was the barge’s storeroom, dried sausage hanging in coils from the rafters, stacked crates of flour, only one way out. I listened, heard nothing, then slid it open and peeked into the next room. No bag-heads. Maybe they were fishing for my body. I advanced as stealthily as my three hundred sodden pounds could, looked outside.

The three bag-heads were standing around Ost on the barge’s wide platform, relaxed, weapons slung over their shoulders. They weren’t expecting me to come back up out of the obsidian sludge.

‘Kick him into the water,’ one of them said. A Range accent, that amalgamation of every known language all coming together to make something unique. ‘Get him under the boat. Long as he’s in there a few hours, nobody’s going to recognise him. That water will eat through anything.’

‘Thought that big guy was going to give us a fight,’ another said. Different accent. Hard-edged, city speak.


When you have disposable characters, giving them a single stand-out detail is a good way to give flavour. The varied accents also line up with later revelations about who they were, though a reader may well not remember explicitly.

‘Glad he didn’t.’

There were three of them, and there was only one of me, and those are bad odds. I don’t fight for losing causes and I don’t fight outnumbered. I’d done my share of heroism and the only thing I’d earned for it was a leg that stabbed at me when the temperature dropped and a never-ending headache. But Ost had said enough to get me worried, real worried, and those men were my only link to the Darling, and the threat to the Range. Like any gambler, I know that when your luck’s in, you run with it.

What Galharrow does next is such a bad idea that I felt a need to give full on clarification as to why he’s about to do something stupid, and something that he has previously said he’d never do.

Surprise is a powerful thing. We fall into bubbles of calm and become sluggish. The kill in our brains gets turned off and the fight-or-flight response gets clouded. These men weren’t professionals. Opportunists, maybe. They wore city-swords, the kind of spindly things that have a fancy hilt to impress at parties and a blade that wouldn’t cut cheese.

I doubted that they had ever been charged by a big, angry, determined man with a cutlass in hand.

Life is all about new experiences.

Again, a small, light-hearted turn of phrase can really change the way that the reader is feeling in the scene. We *know* that Galharrow isn’t going to die to some random guys with bags on their heads because as the narrator he’s got plot armour all over him, so no need to go full-on drama here. Also, having survived them once already, we know it’s his time to turn the tables and we get to exult in the charge with him.

The first of them had just shoved Ost’s body into the murk when they saw me, started yelling. One bag-head grabbed the firearm slung over his shoulder and had nearly brought it round to parry when I cut him from shoulder to hip. He was dead before the pieces joined Ost in the muck.

The others bolted and I went for the closest. He threw down his spent matchlock and drew his duelling sword, the blade narrow and thrusty. He got a parry in and sparks spat across his bag-face but he couldn’t drive back against my heavier blade and I whipped his sword out of the way and took his wrist with the back edge. He shrieked, stumbled back, tripped on a coil of rope and followed the first man over the edge.

I can’t resist putting in authentic swordsmanship from historical sources! This exchange is a play from Mair’s dussack treatise of 1578 that I’d trained shortly before I wrote it.

The canal would finish him. Turn and kill and move and fight and don’t stop for anything less essential than breathing. The last of them had leaped for the bank. Turning, I realised that he’d reloaded the flarelock while I was swimming and now, with range, he drew back the cocking lever and sighted down the silver barrel, past the phos canister and the protruding copper wires. At that range, he couldn’t miss.


This is why you don’t fight outnumbered. If Galharrow had just despatched them all, it would really have felt flat. As he isn’t magically empowered, having him deal with three grown men simultaneously would have felt wrong.

He had me. He might put me down in one shot. Head, heart. Failing that I might reach him, make him pay before I succumbed. He looked at me calmly, neither anger nor panic in those eyes, and I heard the click of the firing lever.

A high-pitched whine rose from the phos canister attached to the weapon. For a fraction of a heartbeat I saw a shape behind him in the darkness: the outline of a woman, radiant in flames, a black silhouette within the fire. And then the flarelock’s canister erupted in a blaze of flaming, hissing moonlight. Sparks sprayed thirty feet in all directions. I covered my face with a hand and ducked as the embers sprayed me, a thousand wasp stings sizzling as they struck. As the fireworks faded, peace descended over the canal, disturbed only by the barking of distant dogs, still riled by the quake. I was burned, and my lungs were blazing like I’d inhaled a sack of bees, but I was still alive.

There was no sign of the man who’d fallen into the water. I guess he wasn’t a swimmer.

No sign of the woman in the light either. She was burned into my vision until I blinked and then she was gone, and I was left wondering whether I’d really seen anything there at all.

No. Of course not. Wishful thinking. That was all. The man whose weapon had misfired was making the last sounds he’d make in this life. He probably didn’t understand what had just happened. Flarelocks were unstable things, with a delicate backlash-venting system to handle the discharge of phos energy. When those systems failed, the results weren’t pretty. In this case the steel phos canister had detonated, spraying him with white-hot shrapnel, his body torn and bleeding from dozens of bloody tears.

He made a few hopeless noises. Then he was dead and everything was quiet save for the wheeze of my own heavy breathing. I was getting as out of shape as dead old Levan Ost. Still. Four men had just died, and I was still standing.

Aaaaand all of this – from the exploding weapon to the woman in light to the man who fired it – leads into three separate plot threads. Three birds with one stone.

I made the leap to the bank and looked down at the tangled, ruined man who’d put his faith in the light and been punished for it. I stripped the bag from his head. Odd. He looked familiar. An ordinary-looking kind of man, brown hair, a moustache, his only distinguishing feature a large mole beneath his left eye. And yet, I was sure I knew him.

I did, I realised. I’d killed him three weeks ago.

The last line of a first chapter needs to carry as much weight as the first. This last line sets up an immediate mystery for the protagonist to solve and spurs the investigation that will commence in chapter 2. It’s unusual enough that a reader will hopefully want to turn the page to continue, and it’s vital that this happens because the action has just played out. A very common first chapter error that I used to make all the time was to wrap up an event in the first chapter. It’s vital that this feels like the beginning of something larger – a minor event in a grander scheme – and not the end of matters, even though the bad guys are all dead.


Ed McDonald’s Ravencry is published by Gollancz in the UK and Ace Books in North America.

Also on CR: Interview with Ed McDonald (2017); Review of Blackwing

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter


One thought on “An Annotated Chapter of RAVENCRY by Ed McDonald (Gollancz/Ace)

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