Fantasy Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald

I was honestly getting tired of the whole grimdark scene. I felt it was becoming monotonous and repetitive. It wasn't the darkness or the absence of hope that bothered me, it was something else that I couldn't quite put my finger on. As soon as I picked up Blackwing, I realized what that something else was.

Imagination. Wonder. Awe.

Yes, grimdark has become so obsessed with finding new ways to drag the reader down into horror and depression that it's lost sight of those soaring emotions that the fantasy genre, as a whole, has always provoked. Ed McDonald clearly recognizes that, and in Blackwing he's given us a novel that manages to be GDAF while still provoking that classic sense of wonder and awe.

This is almost a new genre, an epic, post-apocalyptic, grimdark fantasy that's full of imagination (and horror). It has been eighty years since the climactic battle that ends most epic fantasy sagas, a victory (of a sort) won at an unbelievable cost. The magical destruction wrought by Nall's 'Engine' has left a wasteland of ghosts, tainted magic, and monsters between two kingdoms. The looming threat represented by that weapon of mass destruction did nothing to end the conflict, however. It just twisted open warfare into a monstrous sort of terrorism, complete with the magical equivalent of suicide bombers and child assassins.

The problem is, there's a very real chance that Nall's 'Engine' is broken, and the agents of Deep Kings are anxious to determine the truth.

From beginning to end, this is Captain Galharrow's tale. He is the protagonist, point-of-view, and conscience of the tale. A scarred and bitter veteran of too many conflicts, he's as haunted by his past as the world is by its future. At first, he just seems like your typical hard-edged anti-hero, but there is genuine depth to his character that goes along with his tragic backstory. Despite having fallen into a life as a bounty hunter, magically tied and indebted to more than one sorcerer, he is a good man for whom the end always justifies the means, so long as he is the one to pay the price. Ezabeth, the other character of note here, is an interesting woman and an even more fascinating catalyst for the story. She is a woman of mystery, capable of astounding feats of magic, and yet scarred by her own past. We spend as much of the book wondering whether she recognizes Galharrow for who he is as we do contemplating whether she is truly mad.

As much as I enjoyed it, I did have one challenge with the book. What we see of the world is fantastically detailed, and the mythology of the Nameless and the Deep Kings is intriguing, but we never really get a sense of the world itself. Much of that is due to us being tied to Galharrow as a point-of-view character - we only know what he knows - but I feel like the story could have used something like a campfire story or a drunken recollection of how the world used to be, what lies beyond their stronghold, or what the cities beyond the Misery are said to be like. Without that context, it almost feels as if these god-like forces are fighting over a whole lot of nothing.

Blackwing not only had one of the greatest opening chapters I have read in ages, it had a finale that was worthy of the story leading up to it. So many epic fantasies seem to fall apart at the end, with a climax that simply cannot compete with the expectations we've built as readers, but McDonald delivered on every aspect of it. I'm not sure where Ravens' Mark heads next, but I'm definitely curious to see where it takes us.

Kindle Edition, 384 pages
Expected publication: July 27th 2017 by Gollancz

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from Gollancz in exchange for review consideration. This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my review.


  1. I liked the cover and sound of this. I too would want to wonder and awe, especially in a dark tale. I'm glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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