THE BLACK HAWKS by David Wragg (Book Review)
The Good: Larger than life characters thrown together in a small world of consequences and c*ck ups – despite covering the well-worn tropes of a mercenary band, this is anything but your average crew.
The Bad: Not a negative, but if you’re expecting a bunch of merry (or not so merry) mercs from the get go, curb your enthusiasm. The crew don’t show up for the first few chapters (70 or so pages).
The Ugly Truth: If you’re a fan of mercenary fantasies (I am) then you’ll be a fan of The Black Hawks. But don’t let the cover and comparisons fool you, this isn’t the same kind of crew as Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. The Black Hawks has humour, gutter and gallows, and heart too; but this bunch of misfits are nowhere near as friendly – though just as handy in a fight (and lucky for us readers, there’s plenty of that!).
Review: The Black Hawks is David Wragg’s debut novel. Published by Harper Voyager in the UK, it is the first instalment in The Articles of Faith series. A big thank you to Harry Illingworth at DHH literary agency for providing a copy for review.
From the moment I heard about The Black Hawks, I knew that I had to read it. I’m a BIG fan of mercenary books, and have been since reading James Barclay’s The Raven series. In terms of more recent releases, I must have read/listened to Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames at least half a dozen times, and The Black Hawks’ cover suggested a similar tale in the telling.
BUT it’s not. Well, it is, but it’s not.
Bear with me while I try and explain.
The Black Hawks themselves are as colourful as their choice of cussing. They’re not the Kings of the Wyld band of miscreants that the cover hints at (more on this later); instead, they’re a bunch of bitter, black-hearted and black-humoured bastards. They’re the type of people who you’d rather have as friends than enemies. Which, funnily enough, is how Chel falls into their company, alongside his Princely charge. And, for me, it was these two who stole the spotlight from the main act.
The Prince starts off being tedious, but grows to become endearing. And Chel. Well, Chel is fantastic at not being fantastic. He’s just so normal, and that in itself is a joy to read. He’s a bit of a jack of all (ish) trades, master of none, who gets by not on his own good fortune, but more the misfortune of others. And as the story is told through his perspective, it’s a nice change from other highly capable protagonists.
Continuing this average but not so average theme, this isn’t your typical grimdark grey mercenary outing. Where normally good and evil mixes like black and white on a paint palette into varying degrees of morally grey characters, The Black Hawks throws in a joyful but murky yellow to the mix. As strange as that sounds, it makes for a sunny disposition amongst the gloom of its grimdark brethren. Which is really weird, because there’s plenty of brown from getting down and dirty, and red from the ensuing bloodshed.
But it works.
The Black Hawks isn’t exactly light-hearted, but it does wear its heart on its sleeve – surrounded by scars and tattoos that wouldn’t look out of place on any soldier of (mis)fortune. It knows where its coming from (low / heroic fantasy) and doesn’t pretend to be anything that it’s not. And that’s AWESOME! Not every book has to be as epic as Malazan, or as deep and meaningful as The Fifth Season. There’s nothing wrong with those books, and there’s nothing wrong with The Black Hawks, but what’s really refreshing is that this is a story that doesn’t go about building up an entire world only to end it with a big bad evil villain monologuing its downfall.
Despite the many, many mercenary books out there, The Black Hawks proves that there’s still a different way to tell the trope. And once you start reading it you realise that it really is a very different tale. Fantasy with comedic elements is on the up, though the humour here is closer to Abercombie than it is Eames. Its not a laugh a page either, as the jokes are sprinkled throughout, but the gutter and gallows humour of the mercenaries is more than enough to put a wry smile on your face.
Behind the cover, and beneath the surface of what at first seems like a simple plot (but trust me, there’s more than a few surprises in store!), is a story with themes running through its veins. Loyalty, friendship, and (as the series title hints) faith.
The Black Hawks doesn’t come out swinging, as things start off slow and steady, but once the titular mercenaries arrive on the page, it pulls no punches. The action comes thick and fast, with skirmishes and melees aplenty. But it’s the final 10-20% where things really ramp up, and just when you think there’s going to be a KO, the match is saved by the bell, ending with a cliff-hanger to be picked up in round two.
With this book, The Black Hawks and David Wragg have fought hard for their place on the roster of mercenary crews – and I for one will be signing up for whatever adventures they set out on next.