Dawnthief is the first book in James Barclay‘s CHRONICLES OF THE RAVEN trilogy (followed by Noonshade and Nightchild). In addition to the trilogy, the author also published four LEGENDS OF THE RAVEN novels and one Raven novella, as well as two ASCENDANTS OF ESTORIA novels and the stand-alone Vault of Deeds. Dawnthief was James Barclay‘s first published work in 1999 and, in the author’s words, “came from a personal frustration with the pace, style and character matter of other fantasy novels.” Its aim, again quoting the author, was “to entertain readers.”
If entertainment was the novel’s only goal, I’d consider Dawnthief a success, despite several issues that a critical reader might find difficult to ignore.
First of all, Dawnthief‘s plot and setting are so simplistic that they wouldn’t look out of place in a YA novel. The continent Balaia is split right in half by a mountain range. The only crossing points are the narrow Understone pass in the middle, and two bays to the north and south. To the east of the mountain pass is the civilized world, including a feuding nobility and four rivalling colleges of magic. To the west of the mountains are the Wesmen, basically primitive Bad Guys who have waged war on the east in the past, as well as the prison of the evil Wytchlords.
In this setting we meet the Raven, a famous group of seven mercenaries consisting of six warriors and one elf mage. One of the Raven’s fighters is called The Unknown Warrior — that’s actually the name he goes by, capitals included, and yes, his friends address him as Unknown Warrior or, maybe more affectionately, “Unknown.” After encountering this name several times in the first chapters of the book, I had so much difficulty taking it seriously that my eyes started to cross, but in a strange way the name is really part of the fun atmosphere in Dawnthief — and, surprisingly, even ends up having real significance in one of the few original fantasy ideas to appear in this novel.
At the start of Dawnthief, the Raven is engaged in the defense of one baron’s castle from the attack of another noble, and in the course of the fight they stumble into another dimension and encounter a Dragon. Denser, the “Dark Mage” (connected to Xetesk, the more evil college of magic) recovers an artifact from the dragon, and this item turns out to be one of the components for Dawnthief — an immensely destructive spell that will prove vitally important in the defense against the resurgent Wesmen and the threat of the Wytchlord’s resurrection.
From that point on, the novel basically never slows down: sword fights, magical battles, a damsel in distress, more sword fights, full-on warfare. Frequently, Dawnthief reads like a particularly hectic D&D campaign, with the party of heroes traveling hither and yon across the land, collecting spell components, getting injured and healed in battle, making wisecracks as they cut down their enemies or get cut down themselves (word of warning: James Barclay has taken a page from the George R.R. Martin Don’t-Get-Too-Attached-To-My-Characters school of writing).
As this was James Barclay‘s first novel, it’s maybe not surprising that the prose isn’t always as smooth as it could be. Especially in the early part of the novel, run-on sentences pop up like clockwork, but given the author’s commercial success, I would guess that those problems have been smoothed over in his later books. I was more surprised to see not one but two names misspelled in the “Cast List” of Pyr’s otherwise lovely trade paperback edition, released in September 2009. (At this point, I also want to point out how wonderful it is that Pyr is re-releasing the CHRONICLES OF THE RAVEN at such a quick pace — one novel per month, with Noonthief out in mid-October and Nightchild right on its heels in November. It’s great not to have to wait for the next book!)
Dawnthief is the literary equivalent of an entertaining action movie. You’re not going to, say, a Michael Bay movie for the deep characterization, multi-layered plot or artful cinematography. You want fast-paced action, fights, special effects, straightforward escapist fun. Dawnthief delivers all of those in spades. What it doesn’t deliver: well-rounded characters, an unpredictable plot, any semblance of depth. If you’re looking for any of those, Dawnthief is not the novel for you. On the other hand, if you want to turn off your brain and enjoy a fast-paced action-packed fantasy romp, Dawnthief is a fun and quick read that never gets boring. Maybe most surprisingly of all, I’m actually looking forward to reading Noonshade.
Legends of the Raven