Monday, January 14, 2019

Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Title: Blackwing
Author: Ed McDonald
Pages: 378
ISBN: 9781473222038
Publisher: Gollancz
Published: 27 July 2017
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased


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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

Nothing is quite as it seems in this grim, brutal world twisted by magic. Monstrous creatures stalk the land while humanity are the unwitting pawns in a battle between the Nameless and The Deep Kings, ancient magical beings with untold power. Captain Ryhalt Galharrow and his band of bounty hunters are all that stands against annihilation, but will that be enough?

Blackwing throws you into the deep end from the start. There are no lengthy info dumps or explanations, the weird, gritty world unfolds slowly through the eyes and experiences of Galharrow. At first it can be confusing, but as the story progresses things starts to make more sense. The worldbuilding is fascinating and reveals an uncanny depth and history as more detail is revealed.
“The sky was sobbing, long purrs of sharp, cold nightmare as the dawn broke.” (p 75)
Told in the first person, the story follows Galharrow and his band of bounty hunters. All the characters are flawed, scarred by the tragedies in their lives and the blood on their hands. It’s an unforgiving world, and it shows.
“That hopeful boy was gone, dead and buried beneath a tide of stinking bodies and enough black days to darken even our broken sky.” (p 147)
The two female characters, Nenn and Ezabeth, are hard as nails and powerful in their own way. They don’t need to stand aside for their male counterparts and can handle themselves. While Nenn might be a supporting character, she steals the show. I would've loved to see far more of her.
“She glanced out the window, saw the battle gear and joined me dressed in edges.” (p 149)
McDonald’s writing is gripping and fast-paced with some beautiful turns of phrase and keen observations on the human condition. On occasion some of the dialogue could be a bit jarring and since this is a grimdark novel, you have to come prepared for a lot of swearing (and I do mean lots!).
“The world is a cruel mother, a matron of darkness, selfishness, greed and misery. For most, their time suckling at her breast is naught but a scramble through stinging, tearing briars before a naked shameful collapse as the flesh gives out. And yet in the bright eyes of every newborn there lies a spark, a potential for goodness, the possibility of a life worth living. That spark deserves its chance. And though most of them will turn out to be as worthless as the parents who sired them, while the cruelty of the earth will tell them to release their innocence and join in the drawing of daggers, every now and then one manages to clutch to its beauty and refuses to release it into the dark.” (p 260)
The heart-wrenching conclusion comes with an unexpected twist that will leave you reeling. Blackwing is easily one of the most impressive debut novels I’ve read. If you like dark, gritty fantasy then Ed McDonald might just be your next favourite author. I’m hooked!

The Verdict:
Blackwing is a wonderfully, grim and brutal read. The world feels lived-in, the characters are ruthless, scarred by their unforgiving environment, yet they still retain hope even when everything seems to be lost. I loved the blend of magic and technology and the fact that the magic comes at such great cost. The conclusion is heart-wrenching with an unexpected twist that will leave you reeling. A stunning debut by a new rising star in the world of grimdark fantasy. I can’t wait to see what Ed McDonald does next. Highly recommended!

The Rating: 7.5 (Very good)

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