Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald (Raven’s Mark #1)

Grimdark Done Right

Let me start this review by saying that if you like grimdark, if you like Joe Abercrombie’s writing, you’ll like Ed McDonald‘s Blackwing. Say one thing for Ed McDonald, say he can write.

Then let me say this: Blackwing hooked me fast. I’m a grimdark junkie and this thing sold me a full needle. Loved it.

Enter Ryhalt Galharrow and the Nameless

We begin the book with a mercenary company, led by our protagonist Captain Ryhalt Galharrow, as they pursue some targets into a wasteland.

Galharrow is not a good man. He’s as broken as the land is, running from a bloody past and held together by drink and the next violent job.

He is also something of a thrall to a powerful being called Crowfoot, who is one of the Nameless. Sorcerers, gods, call them that you like; in this world, there is very little difference.

Opposite the Nameless are a second group of powerful beings, the Deep Kings. The power struggle between these two groups of beings is central to the plot, and the conflict on the ground between their nations, the Range and the Dhojaran drudge.

These god-sorcerers are grimdark as you get. Their power puts them on a level above humanity, and they push people around like pawns on a chessboard. By the end of the book, this fact is abundantly clear. Everyone dances to the tune of the gods, and no one is smiling about it.

The situation is very reminiscent of Glen Cook’s Black Company, with the Taken against the Circle.

Like Black Company, Blackwing is told in first-person perspective, and as is typical of first-person, Galharrow is the only protagonist. I usually prefer third-person, but this worked well mostly because Galharrow is just a fun mind to be inhabiting.

He has some dry camaraderie and banter with his crew, particularly with Nenn, who is a great character, as much as we see of her at least, and Tnota, who is also interesting in his own right. I just wish we could have had more of these two.

The company enters the Misery, a shattered landscape created by the Nameless with a subtle sort of madness to it. Very fun, and a little distressing. It’s got weird, dangerous critters in it that have a chilling, creepy edge to them that I thought was well done. I wish we could have had more of the Misery as well, but alas! Perhaps book two will answer all my dreams.

And there are more monstrous, otherworldly creatures that appear in the book, though they all have a sense of grounding to them. They feel less supernatural and more like twisted abominations; mutated, manipulated, bent toward an ill will.

During the second act Galharrow spent a lot of time alone, investigating the core mystery and moving between key characters. This meant we spent a lot of time in his head between interactions, and it did slow things down a bit. If he could have trudged about with Nenn and Tnota while solving all of this, I would have had a ball of a time, but those two were sparse at this point. Big shame, big sad. As it was, the second quarter did drag a little.

But it was not boring! The prose tended toward short, snappy sentences for the whole book with some really witty, seedy thoughts smattered about. There’s a nice balance of cleverness to grime that I really appreciated.

Half armour is like a whore’s dress: just enough there to cover the vitals without getting in the way of business.

It speaks for itself. I found myself drawn on by these enjoyable sentences, hunting for the next one.

The action sequences had plenty of fast violence, and quick ends. Ed didn’t linger on over-description of violence or gore, just stuck to snippy, effective prose for the most part. I like the action sequences, except once or twice I thought he was indulging in overexplaining the psychology and swordplay of the fight.

The magic system was fairly original, and was integral to the plot from start to end. It would have been cool to learn a bit more about the magic of the Deep Kings and their thralls, as the magic on the Drudge side remained very soft and vague. Even more hopes for the sequel. I’ll have to write a wishlist.

Galharrow’s relationship with Ezabeth didn’t completely convince me. The plot needed them to feel certain ways toward each other at certain times, and it felt a little like they bent to meet the needs of that plot. Nothing awful, just slightly unconvincing to me in parts.

There were also a couple of parts where I got confused and thought I'd missed something. I didn’t understand a development in a relationship, and I felt like I’d accidently skipped over half a battle. I went back and checked through and it turned out I hadn't missed anything, I just felt there was an awkward leap both times.

The last act was sequence after sequence of the climactic conflict. A twist, a reveal, new information uncovered, the plot flipped on its head, more action but seen in a new light. I ate up the last third of the book in one sitting. Once the climactic sequence had begun, I just couldn’t put the thing down. Great stuff.

This is a five star book; no doubts in my mind, or let the Nameless take me.

As I said at the start, fans of Joe Abercrombie, fans of grimdark, get this thing and shoot it into your arm. I’m going to go grab the sequel, and take another hit.

How Grimdark is Blackwing?

Often, I read something that is supposed to be Grimdark, and in my opinion, it just isn’t. Grimdark is hard to define, and my opinion of what it is, is probably different from everyone else’s.

In Blackwing, the characters lack morals, the world is ugly, the powerful are corrupt, violence is part of the way of life, and there are forces present that can snuff out thousands of lives in a blink of an eye.

The book ends with a strong sense that humanity is and will always be the expendable pawns of much more powerful beings. There is no hope for the common man, these wars are endless and humanity will always be spent like mobs in a strategy game.

The land will remain broken, Galharrow will remain broken.

It’s not got the scale of 40k, but in my opinion, this is pretty damn grimdark.

More Things to Read!