Soulkeeper And Ravencaller – Bringing The Magic Back

41885689._sy475_Today, I’m reviewing Soulkeeper and Ravencaller, the first two books in The Keepers trilogy by David Dalglish. I read Soulkeeper a few months ago but decided to hold off on reviewing it until I read the sequel. This was because the books in this trilogy do not tell independent pieces of a story, but feel like one long book that was arbitrarily broken into multiple pieces. There are pros and cons to this strategy that I will get into later, but the first con to this style is that it makes reviewing sequels difficult. So I decided to take the time to read both parts of this series in order to give it a full review because it is definitely worth talking about.

The Keepers is an odd story in that it seems to eschew a number of traditional storytelling elements – in a good way. The premise of the story is this: humans have lived in relative peace and happiness for 1000 years under the guidance of the church of the Three Sisters. The church worships three very real deities that govern creations, life, and death in what feels like a reimagining of the fates from Greek Myth. The Sisters each have various wings of the church dedicated to them, and each wing has different day-to-day jobs that serve the people of the world. According to myth, The Sisters vanquished evil fantasy creatures of the world long ago and built a perfect world for humanity. Turns out that the Sisters actually just blinked all of the magic creatures out of the world, then froze them in time, but they have started to come back. And while they aren’t exactly evil like the lore says, they are definitely angry and looking to take out their rage on humanity.

51vv6wsr2lWhat is interesting about The Keepers is there isn’t really a road map to what the story is about, and it results in the narrative feeling very surprising, fresh, and delightful. There isn’t a clear cut good or bad side, and there isn’t a clear way forward. An outside influence shafted two groups of people who both wanted the same pieces of land, and because both groups hold a good claim to it, they started murdering one another. It feels like a fantasy take on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and while I don’t think The Keepers is going to provide the solution to a conflict that has lasted decades, I do think Dalglish approaches it with mindfulness and thoughtful exploration.

Our cast is a very large collection of character POVs from all sides of the conflict, but there is a focus on a trio from different wings of the Three Sister Church. Devin is a Soulkeeper, traveling through remote villages as a preacher and undertaker of sorts. Adria is a Mindkeeper, who functions as a priest and healer. Tommy is a Wise, a scholar who studies legends and lore to inform the present. Each of them is related through blood or marriage and each of them finds themselves awakening with magical power as the various magical races return to the world. The group acts as the voice of reason in the rising conflicts between human and magical beings, and they collect a number of allies, both human and magical, through the story as they try to keep everyone from killing one another. The three lead characters are all likable and relatable, but I would mostly describe them as inoffensive. I was much more attached to many of the magical side characters, like a sentient fireball named Puffy.

On top of an unusual plot, the series has incredible worldbuilding and magic. The lore, which is extremely relevant to the plot, feels very fleshed out and original. There are “schools” of magic in the world, and each has its own domain. My personal favorite school is “change magic,” which focuses on transmutation on a large and violent scale. One of the antagonists of the story, a magical being named Janus, is a master of this discipline and fights by changing everything he touches into horrific new substances. The fantasy races are also all imaginative and fun. The deer, rabbit, and owl people, in particular, tickled my fancy. In addition, the politics and bureaucracy of the story are well thought out to the point that they feel very believable while providing tons of roadblocks and speed bumps to easy conflict resolution between all the various sides.

Now that you have heard about all the good, let’s talk about some of the bad. First and foremost, I don’t like how The Keepers uses sex as this strange combination of currency and moral compass for the human characters. For the human protagonists, it feels like their “reward” for doing good deeds or saving the day is getting to bone someone. For the human antagonists, it feels like Dalglish is always showing us some horrible sex crime that they committed that indicates how evil they truly are. I thought the relationships, writing, and diverse ways the various characters paired off was well-handled – I just found it strangely discordant that there was so much focus on sex when the major themes of the book seemed to be focused elsewhere. Especially because sex is not used to break down barriers between any groups in conflict. However, there is an antagonist who is a straight-up incel, which felt like it added some interesting commentary. In addition, while I generally liked the prose of the books there were a handful of scenes that definitely felt like the writing was forced or awkward. The difficulties usually had to do with changing between set pieces or character objectives. Some of these transitions could have felt a lot more natural.

The Keepers is a very interesting and original series that most will find refreshing. I would recommend that you wait for all three parts of the trilogy to be out before picking it up, but definitely make sure to read it when you can. Soulkeeper and Ravencaller have some of the best worldbuilding and magic I have read this year, and every page feels filled with mystery and wonder. I know these books are a lot of pages to take on at once, but they are worth it.

Rating: The Keepers – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Crowfall – Misery Loves Company

51wz0ii4rhlIt has been a case study in character development for me to read The Raven’s Mark series, by Ed McDonald. Here we are at Crowfall, the final book in the trilogy, and we finally have a protagonist I can get behind. If you haven’t read any of my reviews on the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, you can find them in the links. However, to save you time the jist of my reviews is that I really wanted to love both these books, but a boring protagonist slowed me down. Our leading man, Ryhalt, was like a piece of coal sitting in the center of a beautiful crown in book one, dragging down the worldbuilding and plot noticeably. In book two, there were some signs that a beautiful gem might lay underneath if we just gave him a bath. In book three, Ryhalt finally feels like a shining diamond that improves, rather than detracts from, the beauty of Crowfall.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot of this grimdark epic, it roughly goes as follows. The Raven’s Mark tells the story of a land with two sets of gods: The Deep Kings and the Nameless. The Deep Kings want to consume everything around them and remake it in their image. The Nameless want to avoid death, so they consume everything around them in the name of murdering The Deep Kings – but aren’t as effective as they want to be. When faced with two sides of the same “die horribly” coin, the general populace of the world throws in with The Nameless as they stand a single step higher on a morality ladder that is descending straight into hell. Some of these people sign on as captains to The Nameless in order to better be able to fight. One of these individuals is Ryhalt, captain to The Nameless named Crowfoot (yes I see the irony). Our story follows Ryhalt as he tries to stop the world from ending repeatedly. Oh, and the series heavily features a magical wasteland called “The Misery” that is like a magical Chernobyl that is both sentient and malicious.

McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding and plot. His universe is a horrible place to live, with most people living hard lives that often result in brutal deaths. However, there is a clear undercurrent of hope and struggle that runs through all three books that keep you coming back. His gods and villains are capital C ‘Cool’ and their machinations are weird, imaginative, horrifying, and engrossing to read about. As mentioned above, the real Achilles heel for me in the series has been Ryhalt. Despite being Crowfoot’s captain, Ryhalt always seemed out of his class when it came to the villains he struggled against. In the first book, it could definitely feel like the only element he was bringing to the table was ‘plot armor’ and it would pull me out of the story. This issue was partially alleviated in book two but is straight up destroyed in Crowfall.

Without giving too much away, Crowfall’s plot revolves around a bar-none-battle-royale for the world. The Deep Kings, the Nameless, and some independent agents have all spent the last of their power to compete for a magical McGuffin that will place one person at the top of the food chain. The action, subterfuge, and climaxes are edge-of-your-seat captivating, and Ryhalt finally feels like he is bringing the appropriate amount of thunder. I really enjoyed this book. It has all of the strengths of the previous two: epic plot, creative magic, love-to-hate villains, and a world dripping in atmosphere and lore that I didn’t feel ready to leave. But, it has also turned its principal weakness into another ace in the hole: Ryhalt is finally awesome.

Recommending grimdark series can be hard, as they are not to everyone’s taste. However, after reading Crowfall I can honestly say that I think almost all fantasy readers should enjoy The Raven’s Mark if they follow it through all the way. It has flaws, but the end result is a diamond that shines brightly in the fantasy landscape and Crowfall is one of the best series conclusions I have read in a while. Ed McDonald should be lauded for what he has created and I look forward to seeing where his creative imagination takes us next.

Rating: Crowfall – 9.5/10
-Andrew