Thursday, March 30, 2017

Blackwing - Ed McDonald

Blackwing is the first in a new fantasy series by Ed McDonald. It’s got a certain kind of noir style. Some of that’s the world – a republic that exists by the sufferance of its leaders, magicians so powerful and remote they may as well be gods, its people used as a shield against an encroaching Empire. Part of it is the characters – like Galharrow, hard-bitten, hard-edged, seemingly mercenary. A man with a keen intelligence, an even keener sense of cynicism, and the pragmatism to do whatever needs to be done – an extremely tarnished knight errant. There’s buckets of gore mixed in with emotional honesty, and glorious and terrible magic sits side by side with some nuanced character moments. Coming into this with no expectations, I can say I was very pleasantly surprised – it’s great stuff. 

The world – well, I don’t want to overuse the word grim, but it’s certainly not a very pleasant one. The narrative is set at the edge of a border zone. On one side sits a republic, of sorts – governed by a small group of voting ‘Princes’, whose social and economic control is immense, a noble class beneath them serves as landowners, with everyone else lurking somewhere beneath. But above the Princes, sit the Nameless. These eldritch creatures are, if not omnipotent, effectively so from ground level. They fade in and out of society, following their own inscrutable agenda’s, passing on esoteric warnings, and engaging in a grinding war with the other side of the border.

As an example of the tone of the text, the Nameless don’t seem to demand the reverence of those in the land they inhabit, presumably for the same reason that the boot makes no such demands of an ant. The Nameless are horrors, to be sure – less actively malevolent than obscure and alien. Their opposite numbers across the border are rather less pleasant. The Nameless have created a physical border, a zone of ghosts and horrors, where directions never quite lead you where you need to go – and the fear that they could do so again is what holds their enemies in check. This is a world of gods and monsters, where the expectation is that they’re one and the same. There’s a grining poverty, a society of inequality and an expectation that life will be nasty, brutish and short. But there’s beauty trickling through as well. A percentage of the population is able to work or store magical energy; some of this is used to power cities, some for rather more military purposes – like large explosions. But the description of a spinner weaving in the moonlight is entrancing, and the moons themselves, setting over the twisting monstrosities of the border – the Misery – almost flow off the page. 

Into this world steps our protagonist, Galharrow. As alluded to earlier, he is, to be delicate, not a particularly nice man. He’s ruthless, selfish, and more than happy to kick a fallen opponent when they’re down. I think he’d probably prefer it if he could stab them in the back, whilst they were asleep. He has a loyalty to a few long term associates, but seems callously indifferent to the fates of pretty much everyone else. On the other hand, his sense of cynicism is precise, and accentuates rather than masks a ferocious intelligence. Galharrow is smart, perceptive, and his observations, if vicious, are typically pithy, valid, and amusing. I was driven to outright laughter by a few particularly on-point pieces of internal monologue. He has enough humanity to be sympathetic in such a broken world, and enough pragmatic energy that he’s a joy to follow around; watching his struggles with his own humanity, especially when it runs into the obdurately awful world, is captivating.

In this he’s backed by an able supporting cast. There’s his able lieutenants, one of whom, Nene is surprisingly sympathetic for a blunt, blood-fuelled killer. The other, an altogether gentler creature, helps navigate the team across The Misery. His gentle vitality and good humour serve in stark contrast to both Galharrow and Nenn. But there’s others here as well. There’s the horrifyingly alien yet curiously compelling Nameless, and their simply terrifying opposition, the Deep Kings. There’s heroic generals, and cowering incompetents, arch-mages and broken peasantry. This is the pageant of life on display in the awful strangeness of The Misery, and Galharrow is our lens into it all. In that regard, he’s perfect – a man determined to be who he seems to be, but not quite fitting into the mould he’s made for himself. He’s not a tortured antihero, but someone broken, making the best decisions they feel that they can – and each turn of the page makes him more alive. 

The plot begins with a bounty hunt, but it definitely doesn’t end there. Galharrow investigates conspiracies, and acts as the servant of the Nameless, which largely means getting his hands dirty. His investigations are the central core of the text, each thread he pulls on leading toward an explosive conclusion. But there’s red herrings to be worked through first. There’s betrayals and duels, monsters and mages to be fought. Still, if Galharrow isn’t shy of chopping up the occasional monstrosity, it’s his incisive mind driving the plot, trying to tie everything together. This is a story about solving a mystery; it is, of course, also one which doesn’t shy away from an awe-inspiring battle or two, and some wonderfully kinetic and gory sword-fights. There’s enough weird and appalling magic for anyone. By the time I finished the book, I didn’t want it to end – and I’m already keen to see where this series goes next. It’s an impressive work of fantasy, and one I thik we’ll be hearing more about. Highly recommended.

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