Blackwing by Ed McDonald

About the Novel

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 takes a bunch of elements that are commonly seen in modern fantasy, and combines them with a few unique additions that makes the novel seem like something entirely different from what has come before.

We have a world that features guns alongside swords and magic, a city at the edge of a wasteland filled with creepy monsters, and armies of a not-quite-human race seeking to wipe out humanity. Yes, some of this has been done before. Most notably in series such as Powder Mage, The Shadow Campaigns, The Wheel of Time, and The First Law… but no other series to my knowledge does them all together.

That’s not even the whole of it. We have a magic system which focuses on weaving strings of moonlight, terrifying little sorcerous zombie-children that could wipe the floor with your average mercenary company, and something that resembles electricity; with neon signs, batteries, and communication devices.

Combine all of the above with an engrossing first-person character voice, a strong supporting cast, a tight plot, and a few liberal sprinklings of grimdark glitter, and you have a hell of a book.


Plot

Blackwing follows Captain Ryhart Galharrow, leader of the aptly-named Blackwing mercenary company. The Blackwing mercenaries are under the command of the immortal sorcerer Crowfoot, one of the Nameless who are locked in a centuries-long battle against the Deep Kings and their undead army. When Crowfoot leaves a message for Galharrow after a 5-year absence, the captain is forced to defend the republic from invading enemies, and from conspiracy within the republic itself.

McDonald is stingy with the details he gives you, and the book relies on you being able to put the pieces together with very little hand-holding. This allows for the story to unfold naturally, with a fair few twists and turns along the way.

Plot Score: 4/5


Prose

The first-person narration used in Blackwing allows for a very strong voice, and this is one of the key strengths of this book. You’re in Galharrow’s head for the entirety of the story, experiencing everything as he does and following his train of thought. This is a quintessentially grimdark book, and I believe the preferred adjectives are “dark” and “gritty”.

The quantity of bad language used in this book is quite frankly fucking atrocious, and your mother would shit herself if she caught you reading it. It’s beautiful, if you like that sort of thing, and it fits the story and the setting perfectly.

Prose Score: 4.5/5


Character

Ryhart Galharrow is exactly what you’d expect from a veteran mercenary captain. He’s gruff, he’s coarse, and he’s tougher than my mother’s cooking. He has a bit of a past, which reveals itself over the course of the novel, and maybe finds himself a bit torn between living in the past, and living in the now.

The supporting cast of characters is excellent. There’s Nenn, a tougher-than-tough woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind or fight dirty. There’s Tnota, the navigator of the Blackwings who is as loyal as they come. Finally there’s Lady Ezabeth Tanza, a powerful spinner (mage) who has more than a few secrets of her own, and who is suspicious of a conspiracy from within the republic.

Would you look at that! Two women and a gay man, all of which are handled well. Whodathunkit?

Character Score: 4/5


Setting

I described a fair portion of the setting in the first section of this review, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I adored it. It managed to retain a level of horror-movie-like familiarity whilst still maintaining its originality, and the way in which the details were drip-fed to me throughout the book had me always eager for more.

Setting Score: 4.5/5


Summary

To sum up, this is a very, very good book. If you’re a fan of the commonly touted grimdark favourites such as Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence, or Michael R. Fletcher, then I’d feel confident in saying that you will enjoy this book.

Something that stuck out to me about Blackwing is that it has very few weaknesses. Provided that you are a fan of books that are a little darker in tone, I don’t think you’d find a lot wrong with it. Hell, just look at the scores I’ve given. Not a single category is below 4 stars!

If you’re wondering why these star ratings aren’t higher, well… It’s simply that I’ve read books that were stronger in these particular categories. I didn’t feel as deep a connection for the characters as I have in Robin Hobb’s books, the writing style didn’t quite pull me along like something by Ursula Le Guin… you get the picture. It might not be truly excellent in these respects, but very rarely have I seen a book that does almost everything very well. And yet Blackwing managed it.

The sequel, Ravencry, is scheduled for release on June 24th 2018. Ed McDonald has recently revealed the wonderful US cover for Ravencry on his website.

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