Blackwing (2017): Ed McDonald

★★★½

The Raven’s Mark: Book 1

You want grimdark? You got it! In this debut novel, the first part of a trilogy (all of which has now been published), McDonald throws us deep into a frontier steampunk world struggling to defend itself against the forces of darkness. Our protagonist is Ryhalt Galharrow who, as far as most people know, makes his living seeking out those fugitives and thieves desperate enough to flee into the Misery – a blighted wasteland surrounding the city of Valengrad. But Ryhalt has another set of obligations. He bears a tattoo of a black bird, marking him out as Blackwing: sworn to the service of Crowfoot, one of the Nameless (ancient sorcerers whose great power was once all that stood between the Republic and the Deep Kings). But the Nameless’s power is fading and the drudge, the Deep Kings’ undead armies, are growing stronger. All is not well: Ryhalt doesn’t need a tattoo to tell him that. But it isn’t until his past returns to haunt him, in the person of the irritating scholar Ezabeth Tanza, that Ryhalt realises exactly how wrong things are.

For me, the great merit of McDonald’s novel is also its main issue. When you start reading, you’re dropped into the middle of a story in a world which gives you precious little backstory, and you’re left to sink or swim as you will. I think I swam, overall, but it was a kind of desperate doggy-paddle rather than an elegant freestyle. I admire McDonald’s gumption in doing this, especially because his world is sufficiently different from standard heroic fantasy to need a bit of explanation. But it makes it darned difficult to understand what’s going on, and the story feels like a thin curl of wood shaved from the top of a log. I wanted to know more about that log – if you’ll allow me to stick with the metaphor – and, even having read the entire book, I still feel like a stranger in this world. There are elements which feel familiar, of course: the world-weary maverick hero with some great trauma in his past; the damsel in distress; the dark lord rising on the horizon; the grim armies closing round the city. So far, so standard.

What of the rest, though? I could have done with a few more chapters simply exploring McDonald’s world. I wanted to understand more about who the Deep Kings are, or were; to follow up on the glimpses of their realm beyond the Misery, where it’s hinted that drudge are not only the zombie-like hordes facing the city, but can also be artisans, artists, philosophers. How does the geography of this place pan out? There’s Valengrad and Station Twelve, out in the Misery, but without a map it’s hard to understand how these relate to the rest of the Republic. Maybe it doesn’t matter: this is a frontier story, and the centre rarely matters when you’re out on the edge with the sand in your eyes and hell creeping up on you. There’s magic here, but in a creatively unfamiliar form: phos, an energy derived from ‘spinning’ light, which can be stored in metal cannisters at the practitioner’s belt. Factories of spinners supply phos to the engine room that drives Nall’s Engine, a formidable weapon against the Deep Kings, which operates out of Station Twelve but is fuelled from Valengrad itself. Magic, if we can call it that, is both science and art in this curious, timeless world.

Ezabeth Tanza is a Talent: a practitioner of phos magic. She was also once betrothed to Ryhalt, in his former life, before things went pear-shaped and he ended up where he is now: a grim ranger whose closest relationships are with his colleagues Tnota and Nenn. But the key thing about Ezabeth is that she’s important: Crowfoot makes this clear to Ryhalt in one of his rare and bloodily painful manifestations, so it isn’t the kind of thing that can be easily ignored. She’s also in danger. Ryhalt doesn’t know from whom, but it swiftly becomes clear that someone – or something – is very keen to stop Ezabeth progressing her research into Nall’s Engine. Since nobody really understands how this ancient weapon works, you’d think that her contributions would be welcomed, but on the contrary someone seems to be trying to get rid of her in any way possible. Ryhalt really should have better things to do than play nursemaid to a headstrong woman who can’t keep herself out of trouble but, despite himself, he’s worried. And not only because Ezabeth claims that Nall’s Engine is no longer functional, which – if true – would mean that nothing is going to stop the hordes of drudge currently heading across the Misery.

This is probably the grimmest of the grimdark books that I’ve read, which will appeal to some and act as a warning to others, depending on taste (the general reaction to this book has been very enthusiastic, which is a testament to its quality). If you like plunging into worlds that are as dark as dark gets, you’ll lap this up and probably storm straight on to the sequels. I wonder how those sequels will work: this novel feels quite self-contained, despite leaving so much world-building still to be done. I can’t quite imagine how the story will develop in the next two books – though no doubt some of my questions above will be answered. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll be carrying on with the story, since I don’t yet own either of the other volumes, but don’t necessarily take that as a vote against. It just means that I’m not absolutely burning to carry on. There’s much to enjoy here if you have the spirit for something unremittingly dark: a strikingly fresh and original fantasy world; well-formed characters; and a rich backstory screaming to be told. An amazingly confident debut, but one which, for me, didn’t quite strike a spark.

Can we just spare a moment to cheer Ed McDonald for having an author photo in which he’s holding a cutlass? Attaboy!

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