Top critical review
Promising debut but found it difficult to connect to characters
4 August 2017
In recent years, there has been a rise in popularity of fantasy labelled as “grimdark” for works which are seen as particularly violent, with cynical flawed heroes and often dystopian worlds. Writers such as Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and Richard Morgan have been particularly successful in this field. By those criteria, BLACKWING could be classed as fitting this type of novel.
Ryhalt Galharrow is a disgraced nobleman who has pledged himself to the service of a powerful being called Crowfoot. This is marked by a raven tattoo on his arm, which gives him the rank and title of Blackwing. With his disreputable crew, he tracks anyone who flees the Republic into the twisted, distorted and deadly border region called the Misery. The Misery was created as a defence against The Deep Kings, other powerful beings who wish to overthrow the Republic. For eighty years, the Misery and the threat of Nall’s Engine (a powerful magical device) have maintained the stalemate with the Eastern Empire and the Deep Kings.
After years of silence, the tattoo rips from his arm and delivers a message; he must protect a mysterious noblewoman who is visiting a nearby frontier fortress. However, he finds complacent, poorly-trained troops and ill-maintained defences. While he is there, the fortress is breached and overrun by invading troops. The famed Nall’s Engine fails to activate and he escapes only because of the magical abilities of the woman (Ezabeth) he is supposed to be rescuing. They then work together to uncover the traitors and to try and restore the Republic’s major defences before an emboldened army led by the Deep Kings can destroy them.
This is the debut novel by a new author and definitely shows promise. The premise is different and does not feel too familiar. There is good pacing and the story fairly rattles along. The world building including the Misery and the gruesome agents of the Deep Kings (Darlings, Brides etc) all show excellent imagination and make a welcome change from the stock orcs, goblins etc. In terms of grimdark, I am not sure it is a completely accurate description – the protagonist although outwardly cynical, is very much a hero in terms of his actions and motivations.
Where the novel feels it could be improved is in the characters. The two main characters, although they have some flaws and back stories, feel almost too competent, and I found myself a little emotionally detached from them. Also, the secondary characters would benefit from more detail and attention to their back story. Nenn (Galharrow’s second in command) felt like a far more potentially interesting character than the magician, Ezabeth and I hope she is given more time in the next volume. Part of the problem I had may be with the story all being told from Galharrow’s point of view, which always makes it more difficult to convey other characters’ thoughts and opinions. To summarise, this is an auspicious start from a new author who I am sure will continue to improve, and BLACKWING will appeal to many fans of gritty fantasy.