RAVENCRY by Ed McDonald (Book Review)
The Good: Compelling characters (and creatures!), plot twists aplenty, and a return to one of the most nightmarish landscapes in fantasy, this time cranked up on the creep-out factor.
The Bad: After a strong start, I personally felt that the foot came off the gas pedal while some of the investigative meandering got underway, but once that was done and dusted, it certainly picked up again.
The Ugly Truth: No sane person would ever go into the Misery without good reason, let alone go back again, but Ravencry is a warm welcome back to the nightmarish dystopia from Ed McDonald. Ryhalt Galharrow – fantasy’s answer to Luther – returns with a bang and a crash, and it is his strengths but more importantly his weaknesses that make this story of human perseverance against inhuman forces all the more enthralling.
The Full Review: Ravencry is the second book in Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark series, published by Gollancz in the UK, and Ace in the US (with a number of rights sales in other countries).
Ravencry picks up a few years after the events of Blackwing. The city of Valengrad has moved on, recovered the best it can, assured of their safety thanks to the power of Nall’s engine. Ryhalt Galharrow, Blackwing Captain, knows the truth, but he is haunted by more than just secrets. Having lost someone near and dear, gone but certainly not forgotten, he continues to fight the good fight against defectors, the Drudge, and all others loyal to the dreaded Deep Kings, as well as the monstrosities of the Misery. But when a new threat strikes at the heart of Valengrad, and a ‘saviour’ strikes at Galharrow’s heart, its down to Blackwing to confront both of them.
I was a big fan of Blackwing, and I am a big fan of Ravencry, though I will say it was a little different than I expected. That’s not a bad thing, but it did leave me thinking ‘is the entire book going to be like this?’ The main reason I felt like this was because some of the investigation work at the start felt a bit meandering to me, but like any good detective-type set-up, the little leads are the clues to the conspiracy, and the pay-off was well worth the pursuit. And at the end, all the loose ends were tied up, though there was enough rope left dangling within reach ready to climb into book 3.
Which leads me nicely to the detective himself: Ryhalt Galharrow.
Galharrow is your more-than-meets-the-eye gruff ruffian. He’s a brute with a heart of gold beneath the grime. The DCI Luther of fantasyland’s grimdark fairytale. In this outing, Galharrow does wallow in his own self-pity a touch, which combined with the meandering I mentioned earlier wasn’t as enjoyable for me, but once things got underway, and Galharrow kicked into fight-or-flight mode, he came out swinging. Galharrow is one of those rare characters that runs the full gambit of human emotion, growth, strengths and weaknesses (shout out to another favourite of mine in this field: Girton Clubfoot from RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom books aka Assassin books).
Which is why, on the note of getting underway, this is a 5-star read for me. It was hovering at 4-stars for the first two-thirds, but once it got to act 3 (I’ve just checked: page 257 of 414, so yeah, near-as-damn-it thirds it is!) out came the big guns blasting their way to 5-star. From then on it was Galharrow at his best – and WORST – doing anything and everything to survive. And I mean everything.
Other characters are equally as strong in their presence. Maldon is a big favourite for me, as is Nenn. I won’t go into detail for fear of spoilers, but the cast is a fully-fleshed out who’s-who ready to get stripped back to their bones by the baddies.
The worldbuilding remains strong with this one, and after the brief outings into the Misery in Blackwing, I was thrilled to be back in the dystopian lithium-fuelled nuclear wastes of nightmare. Valengrad too is a welcome return, and the developments to society following the events of Blackwing are a nice touch that add to the world as well as the plot.
McDonald too has grown as a writer in Ravencry. He is able to cram huge amounts of information into a few lines, an enviable skill, and his ideas continue to come thick and fast on the page. Not to labour the point, but the ending scenes in the third act were a rollercoaster ride of ‘this is a bad idea, but it might work!’
Another thing to note was the big nod to the Blitz during the Second World War. I won’t go into this for fear of spoilers, but I haven’t read a fantasy book with anything like this in it before.
The Raven’s Mark series is grim. It is dark. But I wouldn’t necessarily tag it with the gloom and doom of ‘Grimdark’. There’s a lot of hope and heart in the books, and this is where Ravencry really shines. Ravencry is a story of human perseverance, and when you take out the dystopian elements and the overall ‘bad’ world (in which the main character has to clean up the mess that’s been made) it’s a love story at its core.
In closing, if you like characters who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, with a hefty dose of dystopian worldbuilding and devilish creatures, this is a cracker of a series, and Ravencry is one of those rare books that beats the ‘difficult second book’ syndrome.
For me, Ravencry was a different beast to Blackwing, and I am excited to see whether Crowfall goes back to its roots or heads off in a new direction entirely.