Crowfall is the conclusion to Ed McDonald’s “Raven’s Mark” series. I’ve been a big fan of the series since the get-go. There’s something about the hard-bitten cynicism of (most of) the characters, the haut-feudal world run by gangs of squabbling, unknowable gods, and the twisted, broken border between them which makes for a compelling read. That compulsion is, of course, helped along by the well observed and convincing characterisation.
At the centre of the series stands Galharrow, a captain of the Blackwing, a special-circumstances group thrown together by one of the horrifying Nameless, the sorcerous Powers that rule his part of the world. The Blackwing do all sorts of dirty jobs for their master, usually involving fighting against the encroachments of the Deep Kings, an entirely different, even more awful group of sorcerous horrors. Galharrow has always been hard-bitten and lethal, a person struggling under a cloud of internalised guilt and rage, whilst having enough self-awareness of his own flaws to keep moving forward. This Galharrow, however, is something new. Exposed to the influence of The Misery, the liminal land twisted by magical weaponry, Galharrow is becoming less and less human, seeming to be deliberately walking down the path ending in monstrosity and madness.
At the same time, his voice remains familiar on the page – acerbic, flensingly unforgiving, pragmatic, occasionally brutal. There’s a construction here of a person struggling to do what they believe is right, fighting against themselves as much as anyone else.
In this struggle – and the others throughout the text, Galharrow is aided by a wonderfully drawn cast. There’s the Nameless, whose otherworldly visits tend to end in an explosive demise. There’s those of Galharrow’s friends who remain – most of them in some way broken or twisted by the events of the past. And then there’s the enemies. Oh my, so many enemies. If you’re coming to Crowfall, you probably already know about the Deep Kings, the ancient monstrosities that want to take the already unpleasant world our cast lives in and make it worse – replacing individuality with a commonality of thought and purpose in every individual, that purpose being service and worship of those Kings. They’re unknowable and malevolent, and the fusion of the scale of their thoughts and designs with a very personal pettiness is done with pitch perfect precision.
They’re joined by a whole host of new awfulness, though, as horrors crawl out of the Misery which will make your skin crawl. The Misery itself is as artfully drawn as ever – a wasteland of constantly shifting norms, populated with creatures which tend to be, tactfully, less than benign. The ever-changing ground of the Misery is shaped by some truly psychedelic prose, and the mental and physical pressure it exerts on those within it is often felt by the reader as well. The Misery is a weird, terrible place, where weird, horrible things happen. But for all that, it feels like a living place, not just words on a page. Admittedly, it’s not somewhere you’d want to go on holiday (or ever, really), but it’s vividly described, even if the pictures it will paint in your mind are ones you’d rather not have seen in the first place.
And outside the Misery, the world continues. The soaring heights of the city of Valengrad still stand tall. At the same time, strange rains are falling, and beneath them the streets feel narrower, darker, more lethal than they did before. And it wasn’t exactly a high bar to start with. But in the slow-dripping desperation of Valengrad is wrapped the sensation of implacability, the sense of endings. As the Deep Kings once more look to the Misery, searching for ways to break through and end their Nameless rivals, with everyone else caught in the middle, it’s difficult to see the existing system as sustainable, even as those within it struggle to maintain it, struggle to declare its normality, struggle to survive. There’s a wonderful feeling of tension wired through the pages, each one carrying the feel of an indrawn breath as the ice beneath your feet begins to crack. Each page you’re listening for the creak a little more, and getting a little closer to the end. But there’s no safety there, no. This is a story which builds and builds and builds on the foundations laid by its predecessors, but isn’t afraid to tear down what it’s built, one brick at a time, to bring about an ending which feels right, feels true, and packs a serious emotional punch.
I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers, but I will say this: this is the ending to a series filled with blood, grime and horror. It’s the end of a series of people facing up to darkness, in others and in themselves. It’s the end of a series where the heroes are people doing their jobs, and willing to do terrible things. It’s the end of a series which was never afraid to show emotional depth, or how easy it is to hide those emotions away. It’s the end of a series which has, in the past, blown up entire regions, laced in horror and washed down in gore. This is the climax of a series which has given us some genuinely impressive endings.
It. Does. Not. Disappoint.
Crowfall is, in sum, a wonderful end to a sequence that can be regarded as modern classics. If you’re wondering if it’s worth reading, then the answer is simple: Yes.