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

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Ravencry – Cawing Back For More

36666672Last year, when I finished reading Blackwing, by Ed McDonald, I was unsure if I would be back for more. My review of the McDonald’s debut can be found here, but the short version is: good writing and interesting world, but a super boring protagonist. However, after sitting on the book for a few months I found myself still invested in the plot and curious to see what would happen next. So, I decided to pick up the second book in the Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry, and see if it stepped it up or dropped the ball.

The plot of this series is hilariously complicated, and you can find a much more in-depth run down in my review of book one (which is linked in the first paragraph). However, the short version is McDonald’s books take place in a post apocalyptic wasteland where two sets of gods wage war. Our protagonist, Ryhalt Galharrow, is a captain in the special forces (the Blackwings) of one of the supposedly less garbage gods (Crowfoot), and works as a combination detective/warden/bounty hunter. His general job is to investigate and track down anomalies that his patron is worried about. The plot of Ravencry is essentially that the events of book one have shaken the populace’s faith in the ruling class, and the common people have started to form cults and riot. While this is happening, a powerful artifact is stolen from Crowfoot’s personal vault. Ryhalt needs to find this artifact before it starts causing trouble, while dealing with the fact that the city he inhabits is in upheaval.

As I have said both in my previous review and the first paragraph, McDonald’s world is pretty fantastic to explore. A large part of the world revolves around a slice of land that separates the two warring gods: a horrific wasteland called the Misery. There is a dualism to the Misery; it is filled with untold horrors, but it is also constantly explored and mapped in order to maintain the boundary against the rival deities. This forced exploration provides a powerful natural narrative vehicle by which to show the reader all sorts of cool and terrifying things. You also find yourself buying in to the idea that the Misery is this awful place due to reactions of all the trackers who have gone in to map it. In Ravencry, the world continues its patterns of excellence. McDonald expands the scope of his world building. The first books primarily focuses on a single city and the Misery, while the second does a better job of selling these two massive countries at war.

However, while Ravencry still has the strengths of its predecessor, my real question was did it shore up my big issue with book one – the characters, specifically Ryhart. The answer to this is …somewhat. The support cast in Blackwing was decent, but I would argue that Ravencry‘s is slightly better. The supporting characters are a mix of new and old, and McDonald feels like he takes a lot more time to introduce, and flesh out, all the people you meet. I definitely felt like I understood the identities and motivations of characters in Ravencry, whereas many of the cast felt like one dimensional beings provided to enable Ryhart in the first book. Ryhart himself is definitely better, but I still think he has a little ways to go. I previously had two issues with Ryhart; he didn’t seem “special” enough to be the protagonist of book one, and I just didn’t like his personality. Ravencry does a great job fixing the first issue, but doesn’t fully fix the second. In the first book, Ryhart just seemed weirdly untalented for how much faith people placed into him. His principle skill just seemed to be that he happened to be standing in the right place at the right time, which didn’t really give him a lot of agency. In the second book, he feels much more like a knowledgeable detective who is deadly in a fight. I had a much stronger understanding why other cast members might look to him for leadership and why he felt important to the story. As to the second issue, I had a hard time explaining my problem with Ryhart’s personality in my review of book one, but I think I finally understand how to state it better with the second installment. As I mentioned before, one of the huge strengths of this series is the world building, and how the character’s reactions and identities really sell this post apocalyptic wasteland. This is almost universally true except for Ryhart himself, who feels like he doesn’t react to his surroundings as he should. Most of the character’s live life knowing that the Misery could murder them in a blink, and this is reflected in their bleak nature and lack of long term planning. On the other hand, Ryhalt feels like he has plot armor, and knows it, as choices and feelings he has don’t mess with what I would expect. This creates cognitive dissonance for me and makes it occasionally hard to believe him as a character. However, Ryhart is definitely better overall in almost every respect in Ravencry.

At the end of the day, I think Ravencry is an improvement on almost every metric compared its excellent predecessor. I harped on Ryhart a lot, but it really is a small blemish in an otherwise great read. While I was on the fence about the series after book one, Ravencry has cemented my loyalty to the Raven’s Mark series, and I eagerly await the next installment. It you are looking for a dystopian/horror fantasy that has an impressive ambiance, complicated but engrossing plot, and relatable cast – check out Blackwing and Ravencry.

Rating: Ravencry – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Blackwing – Making A Mark

51mvvrp6kfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_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