Blackwing by Ed McDonald
Publisher - Gollancz
Price - £12.99 Hardback
Published - Out Now
The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow's Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer's legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard's paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.
The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall's 'Engine', a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery - a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Mans Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic's defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic's bluff.
A good underdog can make all the difference in a story that one person who never gives up and that you want to see rise and take the world by the scruff of the neck is a tale I will always come back to. Throw in sword fighting and magic and I will definitely be there for you! I’m pleased to report that this promising debut from McDonald creates both a new character to cheer on while also giving us one of the more interesting worlds for adventures to take place in.
The reader is very much plunged into the deep end as we have are told the story through Galharrow’s own narration so it’s that fun (for me) feeling of trying to work out what is going on and how everything works. He is part of a shadowy group known as Blackwings; a sort of special troupe commanded by secretive wizard Crowfoot; they can go anywhere and speak to anyone in the Republic and this means we get to see how the world works at both the top and the bottom of society. This is a world caught in a deadlock. A group known as The Deep Kings many years ago waged war on the world – they appear to be fearsome sorcerers who slowly conquer lands and turn people into Drudges (powerful remorseless zombies) or even creepier Darlings the angelic children who can make you want to tear your insides out. A smaller group of sorcerers however banded to stop them, and a device known as the Engine protects the border.
Galharrow leads a small band on what appears to be a straightforward mission which quickly gets complicated as he encounters Elizabeth a woman from his youth who he finds has special information that various groups including the Deep Kings and possibly pockets within the Republic itself are trying to obtain and they’re more than willing to kill for it. The story moves across the republic from garrisons to mysterious parts of battlefield with the kings; creepy places to trade body parts or to the palaces of Princes with many a glorious fight scene along the way involving magic, pistols or swords and when all else fails fists. It’s a vibrant, dirty, lived in world that has something interesting to find out and explore in each scene.
A major plus of the story is Galharrow’s narration. A man from nobility who has fallen in society he is cynical yet comes across as warm, funny, loyal and tortured with a fine eye for what is wrong with the world. Hard on himself as much as he is on his troops he is also prepared to do anything for his them too. I like the way that he obviously thinks himself a hardened cold warrior, but we see he’s ready to do anything if he feels it is the right thing to do even raising impossible debts for an injured friend. He makes a compelling narrator and one who propels the story on.
The world building here is great a mix of 18th century Europe with steampunk and with the twisted word of the Deep Kings outside the Republic it is a fascinating place. I find it impressive though that McDonald doesn’t just go with convention as this world accepts women has a place in it. We get three interesting female characters all different and add more than romance to the story. Elizabeth the noblewoman who loves science and because of her investigations has perhaps become a little too anti-social but at the same time more than ready to face down those in charge. Prince Herono is one of the most powerful nobles in the Republic and she is known for bravery, loyalty and a ruthlessness to save it and finally we have Nenn the cynical warrior happy to fight; able to challenge Galharrow and mock him when his sense of tragic hero gets too much!
My only niggle with the story is that occasionally Galharrow’s narration can lead to exposition overload. Several times I felt a tad taken out of the action to be told facts about the wider world (in one case during a rather tense interrogation sequence) and a character’s DARK PAST was heavily hinted at that when it was finally explained it I felt no surprise factor. There was a sense that McDonald really wants me to see all the fantastic world and its history he has built and sometimes I felt focusing on the actual scenes to hand would have allowed it to breathe better. But this was only an occasional gripe and I have to say the overall narration really is a major selling point.
So, I’m more than happy to now await future instalments. The story sits well on its own, but you leave it with the sense of a larger world out there to be explored and both sides are still keeping secrets. How Galharrow and his gang progress in this world will be a fascinating journey and I think you too may want to join this series’ flights into the fantastic.