Blackwing is the debut novel by Ed McDonald and the first in the Raven’s Mark trilogy. Within its pages, we are introduced to many of the elements which will run through the three books – the Misery (an always shifting desert wasteland full of mutated and mutating creatures), the use of ‘phos’ (moonlight) as a cross between magic and electricity, the Nameless (gods who are sort of on our side), the Deep Kings (gods who are not on our side), and a plethora of characters who are basically unlikeable and yet we find ourselves liking them. Similarly, the world McDonald has built is both beguiling and repulsive in equal measure; morality is ambiguous, life can be brutal and short, and the threat of war – or a skirmish, or a brawl – is a constant. So constant, that you could almost forget about it until it punches you in the face. Or stabs you in the back.
It is placed by the publisher, Gollancz, squarely in the Grimdark Fantasy subgenre – which basically means ‘dystopian, amoral or violent’ (and which derives from the Warhammer 40K tagline ‘In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war’. But enough of my geek credentials). If you like Joe Abercrombie’s novels (I certainly enjoyed the First Law trilogy but haven’t read any of his others, yet) or Mark Lawrence, then you should be adding ‘Blackwing’ to your wish list.
The main character is a mercenary captain of the Blackwings called Galharrow, whose cynicism and ‘déteste-de-vivre’ rolls off every page, and who acts on us like a magnet; I don’t mean ‘magnetic’ in the usual sense, rather ‘both attractive and repellent at the same time’. We hear the story through the lens of Galharrow’s sardonic view of the world and his wisecracking thoughts are always open to us – though he does not always keep those thoughts to himself in the book. And boy, can he fight!
The action writing is pacey, slick and you can tell McDonald knows his swordplay, which is always a strong plus (there’s nothing to break a great action sequence like the writer putting some rubbish in there that doesn’t make sense and you find yourself out of the story, thinking: ‘but he’s just parried his sword that way, how is his next blow coming from there?!’). The world he has built is vivid – lurid even – and keeps a grimy hold on you after the last page. There are some solid, innovative touches that make his writing not just another fantasy book but truly stand-out and memorable. It’s like a cross between Mad Max, gritty Western film, steampunk (more on that another time!) and D&D.
The result? A superb novel that reads nothing like a debut. Superb – and I don’t say that lightly.