Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald

“The Misery is a wasteland: a dangerous, corrupted frontier between the Republic and the Deep Kings. 

When traitors, thieves and spies try to flee they run for The Misery, and often as not it’s Captain Ryhalt Galharrow’s job to bring them to heel beneath the fractured skies – provided they haven’t already fallen prey to the twisted creatures that inhabit the shifting, polluted sands. It’s a deadly place, even for a man of Galharrow’s experience. 

But it’s a necessary place. Because the Republic’s only other defence against the Deep Kings is Nall’s Engine, a weapon of incomparable power that protects the wasteland’s border. 

And that final defence may just have failed…”

Few fantasy debuts this year have carried such a weight of expectation as Ed McDonald’s Blackwing (book one of The Raven’s Mark). It has already drawn comparisons with Mark Lawrence, Daniel Polansky and Joe Abercrombie, so that’s a lot to live up to right off the bat. But Blackwing does hold its own in that company… perhaps most similar to Abercrombie’s original First Law trilogy but walking its own path all the same.

Blackwing is set in a world dictated by magic. There are two main types of god-like wizards – the Nameless and the Deep Kings – and each have drawn battle lines against the other in a war spanning centuries. Between them is The Misery, a patch of sorcery-blasted land where monsters live and reality shifts. It’s a compelling setting, and lends itself well to a narrative where flawed, broken characters violently collide. It’s in this set up that I saw the most similarity to Abercrombie’s First Law series – it does have that same flavour of the world being shaped by villains, of wizards standing remote and pulling the strings of empire – but it does differ slightly in tone.

Blackwing is a pounding, no-holds-barred read that doesn’t let up. It’s unflinching and revels in its depiction of humanity as something that might not be worth saving. Sure, there are moments of hope and love and light in this novel, but they never quite raise the story or the characters out of the mud, so to speak. This won’t be a problem for some readers, especially fans of grimdark, but I personally found it to be a bit wearing. I liked this aspect of Abercrombie’s work because there was a charm to even his most despicable characters, but McDonald instead primarily uses his protagonist Ryhalt Galharrow’s past, shaky principles, and romantic interest in the character Ezabeth to create that emotional sympathy or connection in the reader. This is handled well enough, but I think because the plot relies on the uncovering of a mystery and everything feeds into this to advance the plot, I could never quite see past the nuts and bolts to make that emotional connection – the romantic element felt more like necessary character motivation to drive the narrative rather than something organic and true.

Still, Blackwing shines in its worldbuilding and its fast-paced, action-heavy narrative, providing an entertaining and blisteringly visceral read. The writing style is similarly sharp and concise to match, though in the beginning of the novel some sentences read awkwardly and didn’t seem to go anywhere. I found this distracting at first, but it lessens as the story progresses and if you keep with it then the writing style does work to compliment the protagonist and the pace and tone of the story.

The plot was satisfyingly resolved, so much so that it almost felt like a standalone novel. There is a sequel coming, and there are a few threads left hanging for that to tackle, so it will be interesting to see where McDonald takes this story from here. I do wish more of the supporting characters had been given room to develop in this novel, especially Ness and Tnota, but it didn’t detract from the story too much and I do imagine the sequel will benefit from deepening this world and its characters.

Overall, I give Blackwing three out of five stars. Entertaining, but I didn’t feel connected to the characters and, due to the tone of the story, I wasn’t particularly rooting for them to win out. The setting was rich and interesting though, and the approach to magic and action was more than enough to keep me turning the pages. I suspect many readers will thoroughly enjoy this confident debut.


You can learn more about Ed McDonald here, and Blackwing is available from here. I read the UK hardback edition.

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