Blackwing by Ed McDonald
‘Somebody warned them that we were coming. The sympathisers left nothing behind but an empty apartment and a few volumes of illegal verse. A half-eaten meal, ransacked drawers. They’d scrambled together what little they could carry and fled east into the Misery. Back when I wore the uniform the marshal told me only three kinds of people willingly enter the Misery: the desperate, the stupid and the greedy.’
The republic faces annihilation. 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, and far across the wasteland known as the Misery a vast army is on the move.
I was sucked into the world of this story from the first page, but unfortunately, after the thrilling opening this book started to let me down. The more I read, the more bored I became and the less concerned I felt about what was going to happen.
This is a gritty epic fantasy that starts off well. There’s a lot of jargon thrown at you in the first couple of pages but the action is so exciting that it doesn’t matter at the time. But this world doesn’t have enough depth and the writing is strangely lacking in detail for a fantasy novel, so I had trouble visualising the world.
There are plenty of interesting concepts in this book; I particularly liked the Spinners, people who can spin energy from moonlight and use it to unleash powerful blasts of magic, and the Misery, a desert wasteland inhabited by horrible creatures warped by magic. But all the clever concepts in the world won’t save a book if you don’t care about the characters, and that was my main problem with Blackwing.
Our protagonist is Ryhalt Galharrow: fighter, alcoholic and cliché. I understand what McDonald was trying to do and, don’t get me wrong, I love a story with an antihero protagonist. But Galharrow is an awful person. He goes on about how much he hates fat people and judges many of the other characters based on their appearance. McDonald seems to think that having a character swagger around is enough to make up for an absence of personality.
Even if you didn’t know the name of the author of this book, you would still be able to tell it was written by a man, because the female characters are walking mouthpieces saying whatever the author wants them to say, rather than acting like real people. This is particularly true of Ezabeth, the ‘mysterious noblewoman’ mentioned in the blurb, who is a plot device rather than a character (she could have been replaced by a powerful magical object and it wouldn’t have made much difference). This is a prevalent problem in fantasy; why is it some authors can conjure fantastical worlds that stretch the boundaries of imagination, but they can’t imagine that women are people too?
My other main problem is the writing. McDonald writes with very strange pacing, so events that should have been major moments were rushed over in a few sentences. Subplots were left hanging or else resolved without any explanation. The style also swung wildly between melodrama (particularly in the romance scenes) and gritty realism. As a reader it was hard to know where I stood.
From all the reviews I’ve read I seem to be in the minority here. Unfortunately, this is a book that fails to live up to the hype. It’s the first in a new trilogy, but I won’t be reading the rest in the series.