(2017) Ed McDonald, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 380pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22201-4
The topic of what does or does not qualify to be a grimdark novel is a continual debate amongst scholars of the fantasy genre. Ed McDonald’s debut novel, Blackwing published by Gollancz, is generally regarded to qualify in this category.
The story is a first-person narration from Captain Ryalt Galharrow, a special officer, tasked with patrolling The Misery, a wasteland created in the last war between humanity and the Deep Kings. When he is alerted by Crowfoot, one of the great wizards who led the republic in the last war, that the enemy is gathering again, he returns to civilisation and begins an investigation to find traitors amidst its defenders. Fate and machination throws him into partnership with a childhood friend, Ezabeth, a powerful Spinner, who can weave light into a variety of different magical effects and who knows that the key defensive weapon of the republic, Niall’s Engine, as been fatally sabotaged. Together, with Galharrow’s military companions, they track down the betrayers of their people and lead the fight against the zombie-like armies of the Deep Kings as they rise up out of The Misery and threaten to ruin the world.
McDonald’s writing is gritty and pacey, following a path well-trodden by authors such as Joe Abercrombie and John Honor Jacobs in fusing imagery and themes from the western genre into a fantasy that also borrows from zombie invasion stories. In doing this, Blackwing is a bit more successful than Abercrombie’s Red Country, by being a tightly plotted narrative, but a little less successful than Honor Jacobs, The Incorruptibles, by not depicting the same vivid political landscape. Action scenes are competently done, but never quite manage to rise out of their movements, manoeuvres and immediate needs. Our protagonists are repeatedly damaged, but somehow, continue to function when needed to survive or complete a desperate last stand.
Readers of Abercrombie will notice other familiar themes. Galharrow has something of Logen Ninefingers about him and Crowfoot is a removed reinterpretation of Bayaz, the grand schemer of 'The First Law' trilogy. Both wizards are playing chess against their enemies and are used to exploit the assumptive morality of the reader. We expect these wizards to be good, moral and just; a reincarnation of Gandalf, whose schemes were only occasionally questioned, but were ultimately justified and by their result. Abercrombie’s Bayaz orchestrates the quests of the entire trilogy and reveals himself to be morally equivalent to the enemy. McDonald’s Crowfoot is revealed to have bloody hands as well, but as yet, we aren’t sure how far he will go. It is possible McDonald will use him again in a follow up story, although, Blackwing is a much more complete novel than The Blade Itself in that it does not require an immediate follow up to solve the pressing issues of the plot. In a sense, McDonald might be hedging his bets on popularity, but the book is much better for this choice.
With such clear adherence to the grimdark blueprint, Blackwing sits comfortably next to its peers. However, I would be doing it an injustice if I only highlighted the formula in its construction. As I have said, the story is a first-person narration in past tense and McDonald brings an angsty quality to his main character that distinguishes Galharrow from his comparable archetypes. There is a sense of futile hope too, as both Galharrow and Ezabeth struggle to come to terms with what they were to each other and what they are now. The conclusion of the story brings with it an emotional weight that makes Blackwing more than style, froth and grit. There is shown poignancy here too, something that grimdark works often lack whilst their characters are wallowing amidst their moody baggage. McDonald's characters evolve and change through the story, their experiences weighing on them, but also shaping them positively. There is certainly a lot of careful and clever work going on here.
Fans of grimdark will enjoy Blackwing. It will be interesting to see what McDonald writes next.
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