Book Review – “Blackwing” (2017) by Ed McDonald

Book Review – “Blackwing” (2017) by Ed McDonald

5/6

Ell McGuigan

Corruption doesn’t take root in isolation, it embeds itself where the soil is fertile.” 

 

Blackwing is a story that falls quite neatly into the realm of “Grimdark Fantasy”, however this categorisation is somewhat nuanced.

The setting, one which is quite unique, mixes in several other important genre influences and the result is an interesting convergence of fiction styles. The world is considered pre-apocalypse, but it seems to be only just. The land and sky are blackened and scarred both, with much of the story taking place in a vast wasteland known as “the Misery”. This is an environment where the laws of reality are abused, warped and sometimes ignored all together, and the mutated lifeforms within are as alien to us as one would expect of such a place. The pockets of civilisation that you run into in this world seem to be akin to those of the industrial revolution, and the general feel of these areas is one of dark steampunk, perhaps with a tiny touch of cyberpunk. The main antagonists, and even some of the “protagonists” (inverted commas intended) are very lovecraftian, with a lot of focus on the maddening, indescribable nature of eldritch gods. I don’t know about you, but these sort of things tick all of my boxes. The world-building in this story is second to none and it’s one of the aspects that really stand out. This unique setting is explained in a very elegant way too, with much of it’s characterisation revealing itself as it becomes known as opposed to in walls of exposition. As a result, key details of the world become just as unpredictable as the narrative itself.

The plot follows Captain Gallharrow and his crew, Blackwing, as they do the bidding of one of the more benevolent Eldritch beings. To do this, they must venture into the Misery, navigate the hostile, alien landscape and do battle with a myriad of strange, terrifying creatures. This is where the story really shines – the creature design. McDonald has managed to craft some unique, interesting threats in this world of his, and each seems more horrifying than the last. He pushes his characters through some very grisly situations, so it is not for the faint of heart. It doesn’t read like a Robert Jordan book, anyway. The prose itself throws a lot of unfamiliar terms at you in the beginning, which may seem intimidating at first, but it didn’t take long for them to sink in and context clues helped a lot. In other sections, the writing is almost poetic and philosophical, with lots of ruminating on the futility of life in such a harsh world.
Wanna know something weird, though? There’s only three action sequences in the whole book – but they’re set up in such a way that you don’t notice. It simply works itself up, building the eerie atmosphere and increasing the tension, and the climax of the book is one of my all time favourites. Where the action does show up, it does so in spectacular fashion. It is always exciting, tense and well-described. McDonald even manages to slip  some historical sword-fighting techniques in there, and manages to not lose the reader completely in the jargon. In fact, I think I learned something. Who says booklearnin’ is good for nothing?

 

The characters are mostly utter bastards, in the same sort of anti-hero sense as in Glenn Cook’s Black Company or Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series, but they have their quirks and their charms. Tnota, the sex-obsessed navigator, is often the most reliable member and voice of reason in the group, despite his hedonism when off the clock. Nenn is a nose-less, scarred veteran with little patience for anything beyond murder, a truly heartless bitch and very loveable for it. Gallharrow himself, while he falls into the pigeon-hole of “stoic, troubled, cool guy protagonist with a dark past”, has a head on his shoulders and doesn’t come across as too cliched – though it comes close, quite regularly. He isn’t the most likeable of protagonists and he seems downright cold, even to those who are his friends, but you get enough of a glimpse into his mindset to find yourself rooting for him.

 

If there are any downsides to this 5/6 book, it would be that the romance between Galharrow and Ezabeth is quite forced, but is it really a dark fantasy book if it DOESN’T have an awful, shoehorned love story in there where no one really cares? Well, I haven’t found one yet.
Pick up Blackwing if you can, and you’ll be happy to know that the sequel, Ravencry, has just been released too. I’m moving onto that one soon too!