Author: Ed McDonald
Released: 27th July
If you have even a remote interest in fantasy fiction then there is a good chance that you have seen the title Blackwing being bandied about somewhere. The Gollancz publicity department have thrown the full force of their hype machine enthusiastically behind it. They think that they have something special in Ed McDonald’s debut fantasy novel and having read it I can’t help but agree.
The story is, predominantly, set in a city which forms part of a boundary to an area known as The Misery. The Misery is a blasted wasteland where everything within is wrong. The sky is cracked and screaming, strange and dangerous creatures roam around killing the unwary and even breathing the air doesn’t feel right. This place was created by Crowfoot, one of a group of powerful magicians known as The Nameless, who unleashed a magical weapon of mass destruction to end their war with the Deep Kings. Another of the Nameless, Nall, constructed Nall’s Engine which is a series of stations that act as the ultimate deterrent to the Deep Kings. As the story begins Nall’s engine was last used decades ago but is still manned and nothing has been seen of the Deep Kings since.
The main character of the book is Ryhalt Galharrow who is a Blackwing Captain; ostensibly a legally sanctioned cross between a mercenary and a bounty hunter, Galharrow actually takes his orders from Crowfoot. Galharrow is the sort of protagonist often found in this kind of fantasy. Outwardly cynical and callous but hiding a softer side that leads him into the kind of trouble that a genuinely callous person would never find themselves in. Ordered by Crowfoot to travel to one of the stations and protect someone there he is startled to find that his charge is an old flame from long before he became the person he is now. He doesn’t have the time to consider this though, as the station finds itself attacked by the Deep Kings’ army of monsters, the Drudge. Galharrow and the woman he has been sent to protect, Ezbeth, find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy involving Nall’s Engine that could lead to all out war.
There is so much that I enjoyed about this book. The plot mixes and switches up genres with ease and they are all genres I enjoy. Gallharrow’s investigation of the politics and economics behind Nall’s Engine has all the hallmarks of a good detective story combined with a political thriller. There are several character archetypes straight from a Raymond Chandler novel: the untouchably rich and powerful, their antagonistic henchmen, the seasoned old boss who tells him to back off. If that was all there was to Blackwing that would have been more than enough for me but there are further layers to this that just enhance it.
Magic in this world is performed by ‘Spinners’ who draw their power from the light of several moons. This light is drawn through lenses and and stored in batteries which are used as the source of power not just for Nall’s Engine but for telegraph machines, printing presses and home lighting. Even though this power is created via magic it behaves within its own laws of physics so Spinners are as educated in mathematics and physics as they are in spells. Ezbeth is a Spinner and I enjoyed that fact that understanding the way that energy behaves is just as vital to cracking the case as finding the right people to beat up. Magic and science are blended together in an organic way that I haven’t encountered before and I found very refreshing.
Galharrow’s methods are not exactly subtle or likable but he is on the receiving end of a beating as much as he is dishing them out. The book is told from his point of view and he will be the first to mention that he isn’t the nicest person you’re going to meet. If you like your protagonists morally upstanding and virtuous then this isn’t the book for you. For those of us who enjoy a more morally flexible lead character then you will find a lot to enjoy in Galharrow. He could easily walk into Joe Abercombie’s First Law books and not be out of place.
Where this book really excels is in its imagery. The Misery itself is vividly described as a place where everything doesn’t feel right at a basic level and McDonald’s descriptions of it are suitably evocative and get across the sense that just standing in this place feels feels disturbing. The creatures that inhabit it vary from extremely creepy to outright horrifying but are used just sparingly enough to give the scenes set in the Misery a sense of paranoia and foreboding. It is really effective as Galharrow and those with him are constantly looking over their shoulders for who knows what that might come to take them.
This is a book that has been described as ‘grimdark’ but I don’t think that is an accurate description. While it unflinchingly describes injuries when they happen in battles it never feels gratuitous in its use of violence. It is described in an accurate but matter of fact way by someone who has been in a lot of violent situations. It isn’t glamourised or lingered upon, it is just told as it happens but doesn’t pull its punches. The lines between traditional good and evil are certainly murky but it isn’t cynical, if anything it often finds optimism in the darkest of places. Overall modern fantasy has evolved to the point where morally ambiguous characters and plots are now very much the norm and this has rendered the term grimdark fairly redundant. It is a term that doesn’t do this book justice and should probably be retired from the lexicon of modern fantasy in general.
The last couple of chapters are extremely gripping as they are packed with revelations, twists and reveals but none of it feels rushed. Indeed the whole book is very well paced with changes of direction that kept me interested and I found the climax riveting. While Galharrow and Ezbeth are very much front and centre there is an array of interesting support characters who all bring something to the plot; there is very little waste here. Everything works to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion and while this is the first of a series it is a complete story in itself so I’ll be interested to see where the next book picks things up.
Blackwing is an accomplished and entertaining debut. This book is clever and creepy with a compelling plot and well constructed action, pretty much everything you could ask for in a modern fantasy novel. On this occasion you should believe the hype.
This review is part of the Blackwing blog tour. To see more interviews, articles and guest posts from Ed McDonald see the schedule below.