Blackwing by Ed McDonald
THE GOOD: Tattoos that turn into crows, child-sorcerers that’ll cut you in two (vertically, diagonally, horizontally, they’re not fussy like that), veritable doomsday weaponry, ancient beings that might be gods or demons or something a whole lot worse, matchlocks and magic…I could go on, really, I could, but I need to save something for the main body!
THE BAD: Tough one this. Honestly, this was such a great read, it’s hard to pick fault with it. If I had to point my finger at one thing, it would be a bit of early repetition (or at least it felt this way) when introducing the world. But trust me, you need to read this book, as you’ll see why this doesn’t bother me at all!
THE UGLY TRUTH: No-one has done grimdark like this. No-one. Sure, the scarred physically/ mentally/ morally mercenary is an easy and familiar perspective to get behind, and post-apocalyptic settings with zombie-esque/mutants enemies are a penny a dozen, but this…THIS is something special. This is different. And different is damned good.
I’d like to tackle the issue of labels. Mainly because I can this book being labelled ‘grimdark’. It is. But it’s not. It’s something more. Something a whole lot more. Why would it get labelled as ‘grimdark’? Well, it’s been compared to Joe Abercrombie’s works (@LordGrimdark himself – says it all) by Ed’s own publisher, Gollancz, who coincidentally (I think not, dear Watson!) also published Joe Abercrombie.
Then there’s the matter of first person PoV in fantasy, one of the most prolific of which in recent times is Jorg from Prince of Thorns, who himself has ascended the various thrones of grimdark-dom (Prince, King, Emperor…). And then there’s ‘Blackwing’ the book itself. Set in a post-apocalyptic world (grim) with a sky torn asunder by a somewhat nuclear event (dark), the reader follows the story through the eyes of bitter-bastard-blackhearted Blackwing Ryhalt Galharrow (grim) on an ever increasingly suicidal mission (dark), that’ll see him uncover conspiracy, treason, and sacrilege (grim) and ultimately sees him face off against the big bad of the world, the Deep Kings (dark).
Woah, hold on there! That doesn’t sound grimdark…
IT SOUNDS EPIC! And that, ladies and gentlemen, sets the tone.
No-one does grimdark like this. It’s more grit/dread than grim/dark; the characters the grit worn down from the sheer harshness of their lives in a hard world, all the while looming dread hangs over the plot, as fitting as the name the ‘Misery’ is for the apocalyptic borderlands.
No-one does grimdark like this. Sure, I could be describing any number of grimdark ‘household’ names if I said ‘world weary mercenary prone to violence.’ I could narrow it down by saying ‘technology included, but we forgot the batteries’. Further still, ‘first person’. But, I tell you now, no-one like Ryhalt Galharrow has darkened the door of the grimdark house like this before. A no-bullshit bulldog of a bastard, as bitter and as sharp as the brandy he all but bleeds, he’s 17% Logen Ninefingers, 31% Geralt from the Witcher games, 12% Jorg Ancrath, 47% Mad Max, 9% Michael R Fletcher (the man, not the mirror nor his characters), but 110% badass.
No-one does grimdark like this. Because it’s got a tattoo that births a bloody raven (literally – figuratively – semantics, I tell you!), walls plugged with corpses as a defensive barrier, enslaved mutants and child sorcerers that make the children of the corn look like boy/girl scouts, and these horrible grubbly little shites that eat you whilst you sleep and you’d never know because of the anaesthetic in their saliva…
I would bludgeon every one of those pudgy little porkers into pulp with a plank. (Bravo for making me feel this way – that’s some good writing shiz).
And to address my earlier point, way up there at the start of the review. The bad? R.e. the world building repetition. This isn’t a bad thing, really, as this world is a HUGE departure from the usual fantasy-faire, which is awesome, but because of that it needs a little bit more attention to detail. Whilst there strictly isn’t repetition, the introduction of the history of the world is delivered in segments, which is normally a great thing because it avoids info dumping, however I felt early on that I was going over ground that had already been explicitly stated.
CONCLUSION: Ed McDonald has taken something old and made it new. He’s taken something borrowed amongst authors, and beaten it all shades of black and blue, and presented us with this thing unlike anything else before it.
And, do you know what?
Do you know why Blackwing is special?
No-one does grimdark like this. Because it’s epic.
This review first appeared on Fantasy Book Critic.