Blackwing (#1 Raven’s Mark) by Ed McDonald

I think I can say with a good degree of confidence that Blackwing will be on my end of year list of favourite reads.  This was so good it’s given me a whole new bout of faith in grimdark, which, I confess, I was becoming a little jaded with just recently.   Why did I love this? I’m not really sure I can’t explain to be honest, other than this is a book that is rounded. It has plenty of action and yet has taken the time to establish the roots of some excellent world building.  It has characters that feel familiar, they’re maybe not breaking the mould, but you will end up liking them with all their flaws.  It has surprises that really do surprise but more than that it manages to achieve a balance that keeps you teetering on a knife edge between hope and despair and for that I raise my glass to Mr McDonald.

This is a world where past wars have left a grim reminder of the price of super weapons. Many years ago The Nameless (long lived, powerful sorcerers) and the Deep Kings  (immortal and almost Gods would be my best description) went to war.  As a result the sorcerers unleashed their super power, Nall’s Engine.  Killing vast swathes of innocents and blighting a huge expanse of land (known with good reason as The Misery) in the process they succeeded in killing one of the Kings, stopping the war and holding off future attacks by the mere threat The weapon posed. The Kings are immortal though, they have patience and they haven’t really given up, they’re simply biding their time and gathering strength, waiting for weaknesses to be exposed.

The Misery is a haunted and poisonous wasteland full of dark magic, teeming with ghosts and inhabited by the strangest and deadliest critters.  Spending more than a couple of days under its brooding skies is enough to give the most battle hardened a case of the violent shakes and a need for alcohol in sufficient quantities to induce otherwise unattainable sleep.  But, more than that, The Misery is almost like a character in itself with its constantly changing landscape, deadly terrain and unnavigable skies it certainly is a fascinating place to read about although I wouldn’t personally want to pay it a visit.  Cowardly am I.

At the start of the story we make the acquaintance of Captain Galharrow as he heads into The Misery with his team of mercenaries in search of his latest bounty.  That is until he receives a mission from one of the Sorcerors.  Galharrow is in service to Crowfoot and one does not ignore a sorceror’s demands, therefore he and his team find themselves crossing part of The Misery to one of the outlying forts where they will pick up a young woman and return her to the safety of the City. The woman in question turns out to be a blast from the Captain’s past and the two of them are about to be thrown together in pursuit of a conspiracy that will threaten the lives of everyone outside The Misery..

in terms of characters.  The story is told through Galharrow’s POV and this is definitely one of the strong points to the book.  There is much more to Galharrow than at first meets the eye.  He’s an intriguing fellow.  A cynical veteran who isn’t afraid to do what’s necessary to survive and yet he also displays a touching display of loyalty to his band of reprobates. He’s plagued by memories that eventually help to bring together a portrait of his difficult past and it hasn’t always been pretty and to all extents he’s a man who has given up hope of anything better.  Much more than that though, he’s interesting.  A conflicted character who firmly gets you on his side and during the course of the book will have you glued to the page with his exploits and smiling to yourself at his sarcastic banter.  The supporting cast are also excellent, my favourite being Nenn.

The plot is fast moving and unpredictable.  Every time I made a stab at second guessing the outcome or thinking where the story would go next I was pretty much, on all but one occasion, wrong.  There are battles and fights and plenty of magic and the creativity on display is excellent. I’m not going to elaborate too much, the author has come up with a whole host of evil doers such as Darlings, Brides and, my personal favourite, Gillings that are creepy, nasty or plain revolting. Yes, there is bloodshed but not enough to steal the show and although the battle scenes are brutal they don’t feel too overwhelmingly so.

Finally, I felt the world building was really strong.  I got a good feel for the places involved and the political hierarchy involved. I loved that this has an almost mediaeval feel but one that also feels strangely more advanced with gunfire and lighting provided by energy sourced from one of the moons.  We have Spinners, who seem to be able to work with the energy drawn from the moon and use it more physically and then a lesser version known as Talents who are treated terribly and live their lives like slaves working day in and out drawing threads of power to feed the master weapon.   I look forward to seeing how the world develops in further instalments, maybe travelling further afield and maybe broaching a little more on the history of the Sorcerors and Kings and why they went to war.

All told I have no criticisms to level at Blackwing,  it was a thoroughly engrossing read, I could barely put it down, I loved it and I want more.  I can’t recommend it enough basically.   Do yourself a favour and read it.

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher through Netgalley, for which my thanks. The above is my own opinion.