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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

SPFBO Semi-finalist: By Raven's Call by J. A. Devenport (Reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


Official Author Website
Order By Raven's Call HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: J. A. Devenport was forged from the wilds of Alaska, a true cross between polar bear and man. After obtaining an education from BYU, Devenport began the long journey of making a career from writing. He now resides in Utah where he writes, works out, and chills with his two cats Buddy, and Lulu.

FORMAT/INFO: By Raven’s Call is 391 pages long divided over thirty five numbered chapters preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue . The narration is in the third person. There are few important POVs. This is the first volume of the Blackwing Cycle series.

The book is available in e-book and paperback formats. It was self-published by the author. Cover art and design are DIY.

CLASSIFICATION: By Raven’s Call is a plot-driven dark epic fantasy book with imaginative and immersive world-building.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Raven is an unstoppable killing machine. He's more of a weapon than a human being. Rumour has it that he killed thousands of people, including the old king. Unfortunately, the new one is even worse. To put it mildly, the tyrant king is a despicable and greedy individual who doesn't care about the kingdom or its people.

The Uprising lead by a mysterious leader works to overthrow the ruler. It seems The Raven may be involved, but it's tricky to be sure when no one knows who The Raven is and if he exists at all.

As it's a plot-driven story with multiple narrative twists and turns, I won't get into more details. Suffice to say it gets better, deeper and more surprising the further we go. By Raven's Call's pacing is brisk, and it takes place in a fascinating world riddled with mysteries. The world-building is impressive and deep.

The setting starts out routine enough, but soon magic (sort of), airships, flying machines, drugs enhancing strength make their appearance. The story takes more than a few unexpected turns. Things explode. Stoned warriors jump from the airships. Characters aren't who they seem to be.

Well, yes. We've seen it before. But here it's done very well. I enjoyed the inclusion of alchemically powered airships a lot. They're powered by three god-metals (each with different properties, thanks to them airships can levitate, navigate and generate light). It turns out there may be one more, a much more sinister ingredient necessary to fuel King's fleet.

If only killing the bastard was easy. But it's not. He's guarded by a powerful Spirit Dancer - Valora. Spirit Dancers summon the spirits called aenmai who give them preternatural skills (ungodly strength, almost Flash-like speed, control over the matter and many others; each aenmai shares a unique set of skills with a human it bonded with).

Regular people can increase their chances of survival by using augments - potions like aceta or ciraj that can reduce fear and make impossible feats (like single-handedly devastating a garrison of trained soldiers) possible.

And that's just a start. I'm thoroughly impressed by the rich world-building and parts of aenmai mythos introduced in this novel. They give plenty of exciting possibilities for future developments.

Both plot and world-building are intriguing and enjoyable. What about characters?

And therein lies the rub.

To be fair, I reread parts of the book. My opinion didn't change. Characters are... decent. And I prefer them spectacular. Sure, each of them has a backstory and some distinct defining traits, but they don't feel fully fleshed out. There's a bear of a man wanting nothing more than to find his daughter, a woman who changes from prey to predator, a mysterious assassin hearing voices in his head. They're enjoyable, but none of them really stayed with me after I finished the book.

While it was entertaining to read slow-motion action-scenes involving The Raven, his statements like “I’m a weapon, I’m hardly safe” grow old fast. Yes, he's not in control of himself. He's ruled by Raven's voices in his head, and it's a fascinating concept. On the other hand, his internalizations and ramblings that he can't love or be loved are tiring and make me think about B-grade action movies of the 80s. He's a character with great potential but somehow remains unmemorable as a person I could relate to.

The same is true for others. Their motivations are believable, but somewhere along the line, they start to be defined by the need for revenge, berserk rage, blind devotion and stuff.

My other issue with the book is its cinematic panache. On the one hand, it's fantastic as the scenes are explosive, strong and easy to visualise. On the other hand, when you think about them they're over the top:
Uncertainty and awe crossed the man’s face as he felt the sheer weight of power emanating from her. Valora raised her arms, and the man turned and fled. With one leap he was twenty feet away, dust swirling into the air from the force of his passage. He ran, twice as fast as a normal man, leaving curling spirals of smoke in his wake, diving over the burning remains of buildings and flipping in the air before landing on his feet and sprinting onward.
I think it's a great action scene. It contains plenty of embellishments, though. There's also one crucial and dramatic scene in which loyal royalists/mercenaries turn into insurgents seconds after witnessing the King cruelty. I'm not saying it wouldn't happen. I just don't think it would happen that fast and that unequivocally. To be fair, though, it reads very well.

CONCLUSION: While not fully satisfying in certain regards, rough with its characterisation, there is a sound concept, and enough plot hooks to keep readers flipping the pages with growing excitement.

Fresh and unique world-building deserves high praise. I'll definitely read the sequel.

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