Author: Ed McDonald
Published: October 2017
“Slowly realizing I like grimdark more than I thought I did.” That was my reaction just a few chapters into Ed McDonald’s dark, gritty, and bloody debut, Blackwing. If this book doesn’t make you a fan of the grimdark genre nothing will.
Hope, Reason, Humanity: The Misery Breaks Them All.
“Under its cracked and wailing sky, the Misery is a vast and blighted expanse, the arcane remnant of a devastating war with the immortals known as the Deep Kings. The war ended nearly a century ago, and the enemy is kept at bay only by the existence of the Engine, a terrible weapon that protects the Misery’s border. Across the corrupted no-man’s-land teeming with twisted magic and malevolent wraiths, the Deep Kings and their armies bide their time. Watching. Waiting.”
Blackwing kicks off with protagonist Ryhalt Galharrow chasing a group of “sympathizers” into the Misery. Galharrow is a Blackwing captain, chosen by the powerful wizard Crowfoot – one of the Nameless who fought the Deep Kings to a standstill – to do his bidding in his absence. When not working on orders from Crowfoot Galharrow is a freelance mercenary captain with a somewhat extraordinary license to go after, and do what he pleases in defense of his homeland. After tracking down the sympathizers (or what’s left of them), Galharrow receives orders from Crowfoot to proceed immediately to a fort along the Range, (the border with the Misery) to protect an unidentified woman. When he and his company get there Galharrow discovers the woman is Lady Ezabeth Tana, a link from his past, a person and a memory he thought he’d put behind him. Before he can process the past intruding upon his present the Drudge, denizens of the Misery, led by a Darling and loyal to the Deep Kings attack the fort. Galharrow and Ezabeth must flee back to Valengrad the principal city along the Range where they will be caught in a web of mystery and intrigue while attempting to stay alive and discover what is going on with the Engine, who amid the city might be traitors, and help stave off a coming Drudge invasion led by the Deep Kings.
This book had me hooked in the first paragraph with this statement:
Back when I wore a uniform, the marshal told me only three kinds of people willingly enter the Misery: the desperate, the stupid, and the greedy. The sympathizers were desperate enough. I gathered a dozen stupid, greedy men and set out to kill them.”
After finishing that first chapter I made a note to myself saying, “only one chapter in and Ed McDonald already has me afraid of whatever the hell a Darling is. That’s good writing.” A Darling by the way is a powerful mage from the Misery who looks and sounds just like a small child. From there it just kept getting better.
I hesitate to say too much in my reviews about a story’s plot because I don’t like giving anything away. I will say though that this book snared me from beginning to middle to end. Right away the reader is teased with details about the Misery, its horrifying landscape, and the strange creatures that inhabit it. Then with barely a pause we are swept into a swirling narrative filled with deceit, treachery, blood, and despair. Galharrow and Ezabeth must discover the secret behind Nall’s Engine while navigating the swirling currents of internal political intrigue, threats to personal safety, the machinations of the Nameless, and an impending invasion spurred by the Deep Kings. All in all it’s a fantastic grimdark book.
I never once found myself second guessing the narrative or seeing the obvious outcome at the end of a chapter arc. Instead I found myself trying to guess where things were going and what was coming next much like a mystery novel. McDonald kept me on my toes and had me turning pages.
McDonald’s writing style fit the story amazingly well. There are no long flowing sentences with wasted words. Instead the writing is direct, with short and at times almost choppy lines, a matter of fact, to the point style that fits the protagonist Galharrow’s personality perfectly. I say perfectly because the story is told from Galharrow’s viewpoint. If McDonald used another writing style it would not have worked. The prose is as much Galharrow as anything else. McDonald’s descriptions leave a vivid impression whether he is describing the horrors of the Misery with its terrifying monsters, blighted landscape, and wailing and torn sky, or whether he’s conjuring up scenes of battle in the reader’s mind with descriptions of repetitive stabbing wounds, and the “red wet” of people covered in blood. It isn’t clean, it isn’t sanitized, and it isn’t shy about it.
As noted above Galharrow is the story’s protagonist and it’s told through his lens so he is found on every page. He is tough, unyielding, pragmatic, and flawed with a questionable moral agency, like what you’d expect from a grimdark “hero”:
“Pity gets a man killed along the Misery…stay long enough and you’ll find morality doesn’t survive sandstorms, clouds of arrows, or Darling magic any better than flesh.”
Galharrow isn’t a man who believes in good or evil, just what is. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t wish things were different, it’s just that longing for it will get you killed quick because you’re not paying attention to the reality of life in front of you. That is until he is reunited with Lady Ezabeth Tanza.
Ezabeth, a past romantic interest and a “spinner” or sorcerer who uses light as a source of magic is a somewhat unwelcome intrusion into Galharrow’s life who will change him to his benefit or detriment. The story revolves around these two. Ezabeth has a profound influence upon Galharrow and more than any other character provides the tension of inner turmoil building up inside him, and the spark that releases it. She is the light to his darkness. It is Ezabeth who is the trigger causing Galharrow to make the critical choices he has to make leading to the climax and resolution of the story. All the other characters are drawn into their combined narrative and serve to add conflict, or support (or at times both) to their larger story.
The world these characters inhabit while deeply imaginative feels solid and real. It is both stark and vivid. Blackwing takes place in only a small portion of the larger world however. The entire narrative is set either in the Misery or along the Range that borders it, whether in the open countryside or in the city of Valengrad. We catch glimpses of other locations told through backstory or asides, but what we see of the world is a small geographic area. This doesn’t hinder the world building though. Instead it allows for a tighter focus on this smaller region which enhances the narrative tension even more.
The magic system blends both magic and science in an intriguing way. On one hand there are beings like the Deep Kings and the Nameless who seem to draw on raw power in ways and amounts that others can’t. Then there are the “spinners”, sorcerers who draw upon moonlight for their power. Akin to spinners are the “talents” those people who have the ability to draw on a single aspect of moonlight for use toward specific functions. Spinners and talents both draw “phos” from the moonlight and are able to store it in battery like objects for future use. Used for more than just magical ability phos powers light tubes, the machinery of light industry, and the enigmatic Engine that serves as a threat to the Deep Kings and their armies.
It is a light industrial world the characters inhabit, one with artificial lighting and grim machinery. It’s also one with evolved weaponry. Blackwing is grimdark fantasy but it’s also black powder fantasy. It’s a world in transition in this regard with matchlocks, flintlocks, and cannon used simultaneously for different affect. The combination of swords, sorcery, and guns is one I’m coming to appreciate more as I read the subgenre and Blackwing enhances that enjoyment.
One area of the worldbuilding I’d like to see more of from McDonald is depth in terms of cultures. We are offered a little in this regard but not a lot. For instance we are told about the homeland of Tnota, Galharrow’s tracker, and catch glimpses of his background and culture but not much. Beyond what we see along the Range and in the Misery we aren’t told much about the wider world. As I already noted this works out fine as the focus on this small region helps the narrative tension, but it would be nice to know more. Maybe that will be fleshed out in subsequent books. What we are treated to is a diverse milieu within the confines of the Range and Misery. From the Deep Kings, Darlings, and drudge with their brides, silvertongues, and sympathizers to the humans and their Nameless protectors McDonald has crafted a rich if dark world for us to explore.
I would also have liked a map with this book. I’m a fan of maps in fantasy books. Maybe this is a fault of mine and maybe it means I’m not as imaginative as I ought to be, but I still want a map. In this case though the focus of the story within the narrow geographic confines it inhabits means a map isn’t necessary even to someone like me. Though I’d have still preferred one, the picture McDonald presents is completely sufficient to conjure a map in the mind’s eye.
While reading Blackwing I took some time to research definitions of grimdark. Everyone seems to have one and none seem to convey it’s full meaning. The ones I liked best compared it to horror saying in essence horror is meant to terrify or frighten the reader while grimdark evokes despair. That sense of despair permeates Blackwing. The inhabitants of Valengrad and the wider continent live in a constant fear of the Deep Kings and their armies. The Misery inches ever closer to their cities. Even the means of their salvation in the face of invasion is an instrument of despair:
“The Engine is no gift of the Spirit of Mercy. It is a destroyer. No more terrible and wicked creation has ever been wrought.”
The Nameless, near godlike wizards who step in at times to forestall the Deep Kings are feared by the populace as much as they are revered. Life is hard and cruel and then you die. That is the lot for people along the Range. And then the Drudge come once again bent on or killing all who oppose them or turning their enemies into subjects of the Deep Kings as well.
Blackwing is a story that forces the reader to examine a number of themes. What do we put our hope in? What are the means of our salvation? Is it god(s), people, or powerful objects? It examines the age old story of the big and powerful over and against the small and weak; and how the common people are used by the powerful to their own ends, and how they always tend to suffer and die. It examines whether the ends sometimes really do justify the means.
Blackwing ends interestingly enough with a hint of hope amidst a sea of carnage. It’s hard to say though whether it is genuine hope, or a false hope that will lead to more despair. What is certain is more violence and destruction is coming and I can’t wait for the sequel.