Top Tier (4 to 5 stars)

Blackwing [Raven’s Mark #1], by Ed McDonald

5 stars

I once joked that I’m still a fan of fantasy, but I prefer it dark these times. While that’s more a joke than anything, I do find classical high fantasy to be a bit tedious at this stage in my life. I’m not so into it any more, while dark fantasy often enough breaks the classical themes to stay fresh for me.

Ravens are booked for the occult. They simply can’t escape their fate as messengers of bad news (or nameless gods).

Enter the world of the Raven’s Mark, which starts by throwing us and Ryhalt Galharrow (the first person narrator), along with his band of rag tag cutthroats, into the wild outland outside the city which is called the Misery (yes, capital M – the wilderness, not the city). As with every good book, Ed doesn’t tell us what it is (we’re left to explore the wonders of this world alone), but he does a great job at showing us that the Misery is probably a place better left alone. (The name was a dead giveaway anyway.)

I could immediately sense that Ed has been doing a lot of world building behind the scenes. This dark and grimy world feels alive, and dark it is. But what kind of fantasy? It’s not sword and sorcery, it’s more guns and the occult (alright, and a lot of blades because we’re talking matchlocks here, so maybe guns aren’t the best weapons here). And by occult, I do include the ravens. Or the Raven, depending on how you look at it.

The world is bleak, and our hero might try to be a tough and uncaring man, but he isn’t. Not deep down, because that is where he’s caring a lot more than he’s willing to admit. Which makes him all the more likeable. He is our window into a world full of the unknown (even more so since this is a first person narrative), so it’s really important that I as reader like him. And he fulfills this requirements, with his dry humor and dark snark.

They saw me. I looked at them. A mutual feeling that we were not friends asserted itself.

Ryhalt discovers two arsonists

He also seems to have a much richer background than what we first see, but Ed is teasing us by hinting at it without spilling the guts at the first chance he gets. He keeps the tension, and he keeps it well.

Ryhalt Galharrow – tough nut, soft core.

Tension and suspense is really something this story is great at. Sometimes fantasy novels tend to be bloated and (over)loaded with stuff, but this grim tale travels lightly and keeps the readers on their toes. Well done! This is great and tight plotting, much better than I had anticipated.

Blackwing is like a well written conspiracy thriller that happened, by circumstances, to be set against a fantastical background. This world feels alive (although not one I want to live in, mind you) and provides rich details where necessary. It’s also a world made of deception and lies, where your god (or whatever counts as a god) is probably not better than the devil you’re facing.

Speaking of gods and such: Characters are another strong point of this tale. There are no clichés, they feel naturally and likeable. And Ryhalt Galharrow has promptly ascended the ranks of my most favorite heroes. He’s an underdog, but he’s not giving up so easily. Never. He just switches to playing unfair.

I shuffled my cards, got ready to play the round. They held all the high cards, but those only matter if you’re playing the same game.

Ryhalt Galharrow, street wise and cunning

All in all – I really enjoyed this tale, and while the world itself is bleak and dark, there’s enough snark in the narrator’s telling to counter the brunt of it.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of nitty gritty dark tales.

By Stefan

father of two, not enough time to read everything I want to read

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