Blackwing by Ed McDonald
|Publisher(s):||Ace (US) Gollancz (UK)|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook|
|Release Date:||October 3, 2017 (US) July 25, 2017 (UK)|
Ed McDonald’s debut is an impressive tour-de-force of imaginative worldbuilding, gritty characterisation and absorbing writing.
Ryhalt Galharrow’s story comes with the intimacy of a first-person point of view. McDonald gives his protagonist a voice as distinctive and world weary as Daniel Polansky’s Warden from The Low Town trilogy. Like the Warden, Galharrow is a soldier and veteran of a desperate war now working in a very different service. Life has made him cynical and his acerbic thoughts can cut as sharply as any sword.
“My past was like a cruel grandmother: nasty, lacking in wisdom and better off buried.”
“I didn’t have much sense of smell; my nose had been rearranged too many times and the cartilage up there was more twisted than a priest’s conscience.”
But actions speak far louder than words and – when it counts – we see in Galharrow’s deeds the endearingly stubborn loyalty he has to the companions of his post-war disgrace.
I hesitate to say too much for this richly described world is one every reader deserves to discover themselves. However, McDonald’s wicked inventiveness is the stand out feature for me, a rich and multi-layered context in which he explores and challenges his characters.
There is the Misery – a tract of land that is not so much warped as tortured by a long-ago cataclysm of magic. The cracked sky wails and space itself distorts from one moment to the next such that only those with a skilled lunar navigator can find their way through it. Perhaps this is one reason why Blackwing came without any map that I could find – not that the story suffers at all by that omission, but cartographers do hate it so when the land won’t stay still.
The Misery forms a treacherous no-man’s land between Galharrow’s Dortmark and their enemy Old Dhojara after a war that Dortmark merely survived rather than won.
Peace of a kind has been maintained by the Range a chain of fortresses along the edge of the Misery that I imagined as somewhat like the ill-fated Maginot line between France and Germany at the start of World War II. The architects of that “not-quite-a-victory-more-of-a-respite-really” are an equally intriguing feat of creation on McDonald’s part.
Fantasy fiction is used to the motif of ultra-powerful wizards who deign to act as mentors to the protagonists. Frodo had Gandalf. Harry Potter had Dumbledore. Galharrow drew the short straw with Crowfoot – more cryptic slave-driver than genially enigmatic patron. We see very little of Crowfoot himself. We discover that he is one of a small group of near immortals called The Nameless. They fought to defend Dortmark from conquest by the equally deathless Deep Kings of Old Dhojara, beings whose main virtue is that they make the manipulative Crowfoot seem a marginally less awful master. At least Crowfoot lets his servants keep their shape and their minds.
McDonald populates his world with the strangest of creations – humans distorted in different ways to become servants or acolytes of one or other of the deep kings. There is a freshness to the Misery’s denizens, freed from any kind of trope that I could discern and with a lethality that seems to be in inverse proportion to the quaintness of their names and the harmlessness of their appearance. One of the striking features of the first series of the rebooted Doctor Who was how a small boy in a gas mask saying, “Are you my mummy?” became the scariest thing in sci-fi since the Daleks first crackled “exterminate.” McDonald draws a similar level of horror from unlikely quarters.
We get to know little about where the Deep Kings or The Nameless draw their magic from – beyond the fact that it is considerable. However, the raw material of magic for mere humans is phos – the light of the moons. This can be gathered and spun and stored in accumulators. Hence the mages who wield it are known as spinners and Dortmark’s towns and countryside are dotted with mills devoted to gathering and weaving this precious raw material. It is not a benevolent industry, the threat from the Deep Kings makes this a vital economic activity which pushes worker welfare and safety way down the priority list. The image conjured in my mind was of 19th Century England and the dark satanic mills lamented in William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”.
McDonald takes his concept of magic and layers and weaves it into an intricate driver of people and plot. However, few have the talent for magic, even fewer are called to be spinners and such power always comes at a price.
Galharrow himself may appear to be an epitome of machismo and brawn, but he has depths and vulnerabilities that have shaped him and drive him still. McDonald’s story gradually peels away the onion layers of Galharrow’s past as much for his hero’s benefit as for the reader’s.
Galharrow’s companions are a pleasingly diverse mix. I have a particular fondness for stories where female characters have agency and purpose in their own right. McDonald’s story certainly satisfies that desire. Women take a place on the battlefield and in the council chamber, and not necessarily the stereotype of a beauty to match their power or influence. Galharrow’s allies include more Briennes of Tarth or Tyrions than Galadriels or Eowyns. Ill favoured, maybe – scarred even – their imperfections neither daunt nor define them.
McDonald’s plot twists and turns as deceptively as the Misery itself. The major twists all managed to surprise me just as much as they did Galharrow. In fact I can’t think of a single point where I could say, “I saw that coming” or indeed where I dared to think much further ahead than the page in front of me. Like Galharrow, I was caught up in the relentless storm of threat and fear, with no means to seek a solution beyond what was within my immediate grasp. The major plot points resolve very satisfactorily – though there were a few early threads that I did not see entirely tied off.
I have said much about the setting and I am sure there are authors aplenty pouring over their elaborate worlds and intricate magic systems as they devise a stage of sufficient grandeur on which to set their characters. But worldbuilding alone does not a novel make, and it is to McDonald’s great credit that the characters on his stage and the story they tell more than do justice to the richness of his imaginative setting.