THE BLACK HAWKS by David Wragg (Book Review)
‘Never fight fair, never spare a killing blow, never consider for a moment that what’s on the end of your blade is another living, thinking, dreaming human being. Your enemy is your enemy, understand? You start playing the wondering game, someone will kill you.’
The Black Hawks is the debut novel by David Wragg, and let me say right now, it’s a damn enjoyable, immensely riveting read. The moment I saw the cover my interest was instantly piqued. I mean, let’s just take a moment to appreciate how gorgeous the artwork by Richard Anderson is:
Then, when I discovered it included a group of misfit, morally grey mercenaries, I was fixated on reading it. So far, 2019 has been a goldmine for high-quality fantasy debuts, and The Black Hawks holds a respectable place amongst them.
Now, I know many of you have the impression that this book is somehow similar to Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames, and judging by the cover similarities I can see why, but I haven’t read Kings of the Wyld, so I won’t be making any comparisons in this review. However, I am told by other reviewers that they are very different from each other.
Right, then, let me convey a little of what The Black Hawks is all about. The story follows Vedren Chel, who comes from a minor noble house and is oath-bound to his idle step-uncle, who has dragged him away to the heart of the Kingdom in Denirnas. Chel is bored witless with his daily life; he is in a foreign land, far from those he loves, and is treated as nothing more than a lackey. When an invasion hits the city of Denirnas, Chel stumbles upon an opportunity to be freed from his oath and return home; all he has to do is deliver an incompetent prince to the safety of his older brother. However, as events unfold and the mercenaries called The Black Hawks enter the scene, whisking Chel and the prince away on a jaunt through the lands of Vistirlar, his quest for freedom becomes more complex. Chel unwittingly becomes a bodyguard to Prince Tarfel; but with corrupt priests, assassins, and cannibals at their backs and the elusive Black Hawks at their side, who is friend and who is foe? The Black Hawks ultimately becomes a story of survival, of freedom and the search to discover hidden truths.
I think some readers may find the book takes a while to get into initially. There isn’t a lot of world building, or an intricate magic system established, but for me this wasn’t an issue. From the beginning we are thrown into the middle of events; we’re introduced to Chel and his journey following the invasion of Denirnas fairly early on. Things from there proceed rapidly. I have to say that I’m all in favour of a fantasy book with this fast-paced, action-packed style; in fact, sometimes that’s precisely what I’m looking for. Let’s start with a bang, let’s get to the nitty-gritty action scenes, let’s travel along harsh cold terrain with a band of characters and discover the world as we go along. I was content with this, happy to let the narrative guide me and slowly drip snippets of clues and revelations as we go on. I think because I instantly gelled with Chel’s character and then became quite obsessed with The Black Hawks crew, I was invested enough to just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
So, let me illustrate a bit further about what I enjoyed. The tone of the book was perfect in my opinion; in fact, it cemented my love for this story. The Black Hawks has been hailed as ‘hilarious’, and while yes, I had plenty of literal laugh-out-loud moments, there is also a fundamentally darker story that lies beneath the facade. Wragg executes both aspects skilfully, never allowing the book to become so comedic that it borders on the point of cheesy, and simultaneously not allowing the book to become overwhelmingly dark or somber, even towards the end when the tension becomes colossal. I genuinely found Wragg’s style to be so refreshing.
This leads me to discuss the characters, because this is where I felt The Black Hawks excelled! As I stated above, the book has many humorous moments, and this predominantly comes from the interactions between all the characters, particularly whenever the Black Hawks crew were involved. Let’s put it simply: the banter was stellar! Chel and prince Tarfel had such an underlying sarcastic approach with each other; I savoured this and found myself smirking at all the witty remarks. In contrast, we had Lemon, who just bluntly expressed EVERYTHING with a whole heap of swearing to boot! Lemon was an absolute gem! The rest of the Black Hawks were extremely memorable members too, but the standout one for me became Rennic, who particularly shines towards the end.
Rennic glowered, ‘I hate fucking minstrels.’
‘Then you should probably take a break from it,’ Lemon said, then fell sideways in giggles.
Rennic spat on the earth and stood, ‘I’m going for a piss.’
Lastly, I have to wrap up this review by mentioning that I couldn’t have asked for a better ending for this book. The last 100 pages were one mother of a ride, that was just unputdownable! Seriously, if you’re looking for a book to keep you teetering on the edge of your seat, this is the one! Well, as you can probably tell, I’m just a tad bit excited for the sequel now. *cue squealing*
ARC provided by Harper Voyager & Jaime Frost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy!
All quotes used (with permission from the author) are taken from the ARC and are subject to change upon publication.