Today I have a review on one of 2017’s big debuts, Blackwing by Ed McDonald. This is the first book of the Raven’s Mark series and it has been getting a lot of praise, and a little disdain, from a good deal of people in the reviewing business. As such, I was very excited to sink my teeth in and form my own opinion. What I found was I agree with some points on both sides of the fence and that Blackwing is an exciting debut to a new series with a talented author, but it could use a little bit of polish.
The plot is a little complicated, so bare with me – I promise it is worth it. Blackwing is a harrowing grimdark novel that follows the story of Ryhalt Galharrow (get it because I said the book was harrowing earlier? Please don’t unsubscribe) as he makes his way in a dystopia torn by devastating war. In McDonald’s world two sets of god like beings, The Nameless and The Deep Kings, have been fighting each other for millennia. Ryhalt fights for the side of The Nameless, the mildly more sympathetic side who aren’t actively trying to kill every human – unlike The Deep Kings. However, though the Nameless are the only thing that keeps humanity from being destroyed by The Deep Kings, they certainly are not benevolent and kind rulers. The magics of both sides have warped and destroyed people and land alike. In particular, one of the Nameless set off a bomb to drive back a Deep King invasion that turned a huge portion of the continent into a wasteland called The Misery – killing a huge chunk of the population at the same time. While it is implied that there were once a large group of Nameless, at the start of our story there are only about four left. Ryhalt works for one in particular, Crowfoot, and is one of his Blackwings – apostles that feel something like park rangers that patrol the Misery against possible incursions. While the Misery is a hellscape one wouldn’t want to enter willingly, what actually keeps humanity safe from the Kings is a colossal weapon designed by another of the Nameless called ‘Nall’s Engine’ – basically the universe’s largest set of artillery cannons aimed at the Misery. Humanity must constantly gather magic and shove it into the engine to keep it primed, a task that leaves any who have the talent chained to the engine powering it until it cripples them. Our story begins with Ryhalt getting a message from Crowfoot that the engine might not be running quite as well as everyone expects, and to investigate.
I know that the plot seems like a convoluted mouthful, but McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding. The world, culture, power structure, magic, and infrastructure of his setting are all extremely detailed and well fleshed out. Blackwing has a strong sense of identity that makes it feel like you are reading about a real functioning world – not a fantasy construct. It can feel messy, but messy by design not through lack of effort. Additionally, the magic of the book is both original and exciting to read. Humanity has sorcerers who gather light and turn it into energy. This is used both to power cities and Nall’s Engine, as well as in combat in a form of pyromancy. On The Deep King’s side, the minions we meet have a huge variety of powers straight out of a horror novel – most of which revolve around corrupting others. It makes for some edge of your seat action sequences that I really enjoyed.
On top of the world, McDonald has a great cast of interesting characters that I was very invested in. We meet members from all areas and walks of life that show us all the big and small jobs that keep humanity from succumbing to The Deep Kings. Speaking of which, The Nameless and Deep Kings had more depth than I was expecting and I really enjoyed learning more about them, in particular when a few get time in the spotlight. However, there is one exception to this praise about the cast, and it is really my one big issue with Blackwing – I really didn’t care about Ryhalt.
It isn’t as though I hated the protagonist, it is just that I really never felt attached to Ryhalt in any meaningful way. I believe a lot of that comes from the fact that he seemed to have little to no agency himself. A lot of our time with Ryhalt is spent watching other characters react to his personality, reputation, or rank as a Blackwing. In a large number of interactions between Ryhalt and his support cast involve them reacting to him being a Blackwing and whether or not they should respect him more. This lead to a lot of the supporting cast getting some deep characterization but leaving Ryhalt out in the cold a little bit. By the end of the book I was stuck with two conflicting feelings: the most important part of Ryhalt’s identity is that he is a Blackwing and that I cannot understand for the life of me the point or benefit to being one. It allows him access to insider information about The Nameless, gives him a rank above most soldiers (which in a military dictatorship is a pretty good perk), and helps him make the world a better place (sorta?) but I don’t really get why Ryhalt wants any of these things based on other aspects you learn about his personality. It was a speedbump on an otherwise fantastic novel, and I am hoping that Ryhalt’s character will see more development in the sequels.
With the exception of a slightly forgettable protagonist, Blackwing is an amazing debut that I greatly enjoyed. McDonald’s attention to detail and wild imagination has made a world and story worth reading about. It is definitely one of the more promising new series and I will be picking up the sequel as soon as it is available. The Quill to Live recommends Blackwing for anyone looking for a great dystopian fantasy/horror mashup.
Rating: Blackwing – 8.0/10