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Thursday, July 18, 2019

Ravencry by Ed McDonald (reviewed by David Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order Ravencry over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Blackwing

has spent many years dancing between different professions, cities and countries, but the only thing any of them share in common is that they have allowed him enough free time to write. He currently lives in London, a city that provides him with constant inspiration, where he works as a university lecturer. When he’s not grading essays or wrangling with misbehaving plot lines he can usually be found fencing with longswords, rapiers and pollaxes.

OFFICIAL BLURB: Four years have passed since Nall’s Engine drove the Deep Kings back across the Misery, but as they hurl fire from the sky, darker forces plots against the republic. A new power is rising: a ghost in the light known only as the Bright Lady manifests in visions across the city, and the cult that worship her grasp for power even as the city burns around them.

When Crowfoot’s arcane vault is breached, an object of terrible power is stolen, and Galharrow and his Blackwings must once find out which of Valengrad’s enemies is responsible before they have a chance to use it.

To save Valengrad, Galharrow, Nenn and Tnota must venture to a darker, more twisted and more dangerous place than any they’ve walked before: the very heart of the Misery.

FORMAT/INFO: Ravencry is 384 pages divided over 40 numbered chapters and is the second entry in the Raven's Mark series. The book is currently available in all formats, with its sequel, Crowfall, available in all formats as well. Cover design for the US cover (see below) is by Adam Auerbach while the UK cover design is by Dan Smith.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Even though this is only the second book in the series, I have this expectation when I open up a Raven's Mark book that at some point, a crow will claw its way out of Ryhalt Galharrow's arm, and in that moment I will feel a mixture of revulsion and glee because there is something exciting about that violent act. It's as though, until it happens, we are simply reading a book about a man going on with his life - a normal, albeit grimy, life that involves darker things than most of us are used to, but fairly normal. But then the crow emerges and so too does the memory that there is nothing normal here and that what you are in fact reading is a grimdark fantasy novel where magic hurts and part of the world is already destroyed with the rest in peril. I like that. McDonald times his crowmergence (feel free to use that, Ed) quite well in each of the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, and I know that once it happens, the world of Galharrow and his buddies is about to get much crazier.

One might wonder how things could get much crazier than they were at the end of Blackwing. Ezabeth Tanza, the scarred love of Galharrow's life, sacrifices herself to save the besieged city of Valengrad, seeming to disintegrate into the very motes of light surrounding the metropolis. The Nameless converge to battle a Deep King, a clash larger than even the city itself, and somehow Galharrow, Nenn, and Tnota all survive. They are changed, but alive. Four years later, Valengrad is mostly rebuilt, the trauma all that remains, and things move apace. Galharrow has formed an agency of sorts, Blackwing, that serves as a spy network/private investigation company and is enjoying a modicum of success in large part due to his recognized heroics from the prior book.

Ryhalt can't sleep though because whenever he closes his eyes, he sees Her again, his dear Ezabeth, arms outstretched in a halo of light. It is not as pleasant a vision as it should be. What's odd about these visions is that he is not the only one. People are seeing a "Bright Lady" at various points across the city, often in conjunction with the phos light system of magic that powers much of it. It does not take long before an entire religion emerges from these visions, as it would, and even less time for the stability of the city to be threatened.

Blackwing was a book that introduced fantasy readers to some very bizarre concepts, which while not completely original, had enough new elements to make them stand out above the pack. The Misery is an area unlike any other in fantasy, a mystical geography that often changes, is never safe, and stands as both a terror-inducing nightmare just outside city walls and also its best shield against the horrors of the Deep Kings and their drudge citizenry. This no man's land played a large role in Blackwing, and I was worried that in Ravencry it would take a back seat. It does for much of the novel, but as one can glean from the book blurb above, it becomes more important than ever at the apex of the narrative. I am not sure if it was some skill of McDonald's or a random confluence of mental events that led me to desiring the very thing that McDonald had Galharrow do towards this section of the book, but either way it was very satisfying.

But one of the problems in writing a sequel wherein your unknowns are largely known is giving your readers something new to discover. I was worried about Ravencry's ability to do this. There were aspects of Blackwing that shocked me in their creativity and depravity. The Brides, in particular, were not something I had ever envisioned and frankly never needed to. The Darlings were also a terrifying vision of what happens when a child is warped into something beyond imagination - a Chucky doll but much, much worse. Ravencry does not blast us with these viscerally blaring monsters, at least not in the new sense. There is one familiar Darling, and a few others, but the monsters we encounter in the book are known foes. Even the big bad villain is someone we've met before, and while none of this information is inherently bad, it does remove a bit of wonder from what is a very strange world.

That's not to say that there isn't much about Ravencry worth reading, and by the end I was fully on board with the events therein. The idea of a religious cult taking over, however it happens, is something many of us can both envision and fear - even when the figurehead around which this cult forms is someone with whom we sympathize. The aforementioned villain is a bit of a disappointment, not necessarily because they aren't terrifying, but rather because they are largely absent until the very end, and we are left with proxy faces to despise instead of the real thing.

Ravencry also suffers from the middle book syndrome, being the second part of a trilogy, and there have probably not been many middle books that have ever eclipsed their former or latter entries. It is a limbo in which events for the next book must be put in motion - a book that will be the penultimate in the series and likely end it. That is not an easy position, but Ravencry does manage to be engrossing from cover to cover, and that's really all we can ask of it. It also does something vital to both the series and to the final book, and that is to allow Galharrow a transformation. I won't go into that, but it's strange and welcome in such a dark world, and not at all what anyone might expect.

I have liked and enjoyed both of these Raven's Mark books, while not loving them, but if the plot of the third book that is hinted at in this one lives up to my now-high expectations, I suspect I will love Crowfall. I am eager to read it and to see where McDonald is heading with this series.

CONCLUSION: The world McDonald has built is not one that can simply be wrapped up, in large part due to the massive figures moving around and within it. Ryhalt Galharrow and even Ezabeth Tanza are minor figures when compared to the near-deities that are the Deep Kings and Nameless. This means that we won't have a Wheel of Time style ending where everything is sealed up and all is good. Chances are the dark will stay dark and we will see the end of one man's story, and that is exactly what we should get.


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