Ryhalt Galharrow is a Blackwing captain, part of a loose organisation of grizzled soldiers bound in service to the demi-god mage Crowfoot. When not on assignment from Crowfoot Galharrow is a freelance mercenary of sorts, defending the city of Valengrad and the outposts along The Range from both The Deep Kings, with their ‘Darling’ mages and armies of Drudge, as well as the sinister creatures of the blasted wasteland of this post-apocalyptic fantasy setting called The Misery. The story itself follows Galharrow as he unwittingly unearths a conspiracy at the heart of the citadel that could have devastating implications for the ever-raging arcane war that has torn this world to pieces. Feel like I need to take a breath right here. Already there’s a glut of stuff for me to chew on as a reader and I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this book has to offer!
Let’s start with the world of Blackwing. It’s dark and gritty and it’s never exactly clear who the good guys are. Galharrow serves Crowfoot, one of a number of loosely-allied wizards known as the Nameless, who are fighting a perpetual war of sorcery with their enemies the Deep Kings. As the book begins the war is at a decades-long stalemate, brought about by the destructive power of Nall’s Engine, an arcane, phos-powered contraption that drove the Deep Kings back, but at the cost of thousands of innocent lives, the levelling of entire cities and the creation of the blighted, post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Misery that now acts as a no-man’s-land between Galharrow’s homeland and the territory ruled by the Deep Kings. McDonald introduces us to The Misery early on and we quickly get a sense of it’s unsettling and horrifying nature. The landscape is ever-shifting, nothing is permanent and the creatures that inhabit the place are genuinely and disturbingly frightening – horrifying creatures like the gillings who are constantly and chillingly echoing the last words of the long dead inhabitants of the pre-Misery world and feed on the flesh of unwary travellers.
Galharrow himself is a fucking great grimdark protagonist. It would be easy to say he’s a cynical man, and while that would be true to an extent, I think it’s more accurate to say he’s practical. He see the world as it is – unforgiving and often indifferent to suffering. And yet for all that he isn’t resigned to a nihilistic acceptance of the status quo. His relationships with his friends and comrades Nenn and Tnota are heartfelt and deep and I get the sense Galharrow would walk over hot coals for the people dear to him. I think it’s the juxtaposition of the despair that’s settled into the world of the story with the deep bonds Galharrow has with Nenn, Tnota and most notably the ‘spinner’ Ezabeth, that makes this such a rewarding book. I’ve touched on it a few times in a few of the grimdark reviews I’ve done this month, but it’s a major misconception that grimdark as a genre boils down to violence and despair. On the contrary I felt like hope was a major theme running through the core of Blackwing; hope in our fellow humans and those closest to us in the face of overwhelming odds and a world that can often seem set against us.
The magic in this book is great too. On the one hand we have the really high level, almost incomprehensible sorcery of the Nameless and the Deep Kings, wizards who have ascended beyond the understanding of petty human beings. Because of this the Nameless have an amoral and dismissive attitude towards people and the value of their lives in the pursuit of victory, while the Deep Kings are presented as being even worse. Then there is the lower magic of the phos-spinners, low level magic users who can harness and ‘spin’ the power of the three moons into usable energy which can be stored in battery-like cannisters for use as everything from an energy source to offensive weapons. The world of Blackwing is also a world on the cusp of industrialisation as well and this adds another interesting angle to the magic, with the existence of phos mills that have been constructed to harness the power of the moons on an industrial scale. Combined with a level of technology that includes artificial lighting and matchlock weapons it gives the magic and the setting a unique feel.
Blackwing is a fantastic book and I’m unfortunately writing this review on a day where my brain doesn’t want to function and I don’t know what words are anymore, so I feel I haven’t quite got across just how much I enjoyed it. But regardless of how emotionally evocative my words have failed to be here, on the level of cold hard rationality just know this is one of my favourite books I’ve read as part of the ongoing mammoth grimdark reading project I’ve undertaken in May. Really very original dark fantasy with major elements of horror and political mystery intertwining to form one of the best grimdark books I’ve ever read.
Did you enjoy this review? Find it useful? Follow the blog and never miss a post!