Blackwing (2017) begins in Misery, but things will get far worse before they get better. This gritty fantasy is set on a world where there are three moons ― red, blue and gold ― whose light can be woven into magical power and stored in canisters for use by sorcerers. Two unimaginably powerful magical forces face off against each other across the terrible void called the Misery ― a magic-blasted wasteland. On the side of mankind are the Nameless: ancient, unseen wizards who are nearly godlike in their powers, but who have mostly disappeared from the lives of men. On the other side are the Deep Kings, dark and malevolent powers that corrupt men into enthralled warriors, called the drudge, and other slaves.
Ryhalt Galharrow, our narrator, is a captain of a ragtag group of mercenaries, far fallen from his once-noble life, a jaded fighter who lives mostly for his next drink. He’s also, reluctantly, an operative of Crowfoot, one of the Nameless. Ryhalt has a large raven tattoo on his arm through which Crowfoot occasionally sends him messages; a painful and bloody process, since the tattoo temporarily rips itself from his flesh to become a bird that shouts orders at him. His latest order: get to Station Twelve and ensure “she” survives. (Crowfoot’s orders tend to be brief and cryptic.)
“She” turns out to be Ezabeth Tanza, a noblewoman Galharrow once loved many years ago, who is now a powerful sorcerer. Greater powers have brought Ezabeth and Galharrow together again in the fight against the Deep King’s armies, and against hidden treachery in their own society. Lady Ezabeth is also investigating a hidden problem involving Nall’s Engine, a vastly powerful magical machine that originally created the Misery, killing thousands but protecting men from the Deep Kings. Galharrow is, with very mixed emotions, drawn into her investigation. At stake is the survival of their society: if they can’t solve the problem soon, the Deep Kings’ armies of drudge and evil childlike sorcerers (ironically called Darlings) will overrun their land, murdering and enslaving the population.
Ed McDonald tells a gripping, well-plotted tale in Blackwing, his debut novel and the first book in the new RAVEN’S MARK trilogy. The world-building is vivid, imaginative and ambitious, and it’s a credit to McDonald that it didn’t remind me of other post-apocalyptic novels. It’s also occasionally a bit hard to grasp, with unfamiliar vocabulary that isn’t always explained right away, but that issue lessens as you get deeper into the story. There’s the occasional phrase that’s arguably overwritten or clichéd, like “My past was like a cruel grandmother: nasty, lacking in wisdom, and better off buried,” but the occasional dark humor helps to leaven the plot. Overall, Blackwing flows smoothly, with lots of action and tension, and with a creative ending that I didn’t foresee.
Blackwing is a tough-minded fantasy set in a blighted, war-torn world where magic is more often used for dark purposes than positive ones. Even the positive uses of magic have, almost invariably, a huge, ugly downside. Galharrow, fittingly, is somewhat of an antihero, as well as a slob and a habitual drunk. Despite all, he still has something of a moral compass, and that becomes more apparent as his story unfolds.
Blackwing can be intensely bleak and violent, with its high body count, adult language, irrevocably damaged lives and lost dreams. Because there are some moral underpinnings to our main characters and some threads of hope in the narrative, I wouldn’t call this grimdark fantasy, but it skirts the edges. It’s not for sensitive readers, but for those who like darker, grittier fantasies, Blackwing is well worth your time.