Blackwing feels like the love-child of The Black Company and Dark Souls, but potentially grimmer than either (an impressive feat). On paper, this is my dream combination. The Black Company is one of the best anti-hero fantasies ever written, and Dark Souls is likely the best fantasy video game series ever made. This should make Blackwing something impressive, and in ways it is even if it falls short in several key areas.
Let me first start out by explaining how it pays homage to those two beloved properties. In Ed McDonald’s world, a group of sorcerers called The Nameless rule the world of man. They are opposed by the Deep Kings, a similar group of powerful beings, potentially undead, that wage war on the city of Valengrad where most of the action of Blackwing takes place. This is incredibly similar to the Taken of The Black Company and their opposition in the rebellion leaders who oppose them. In each case, these sorcerers have power beyond the scope of anyone else living. They are viewed (hopefully) from afar, and their orders are obeyed without question. Blackwing’s protagonist, Ryhalt Galharrow, is under thrall by one of the Nameless, a wizard named Crowfoot, and is part of a select group of mercenaries dedicated to the powerful sage. I always like this kind of power structure. I’ve liked it since The Lord of the Rings introduced me to The Witch King of Angmar and the Nazgul and since I fell in love with Lanfear in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time. There is something irresistible to the fantasy fan about cadres of god-like wizards and witches, and despite having seen this again and again, I never tire of it. Blackwing only touches the tip of the hierarchical iceberg in its introduction to these personages of power, and I am eager to see what else awaits readers in the rest of the series.
Now, to the Dark Souls of it all. Most people think of difficulty when Dark Souls is mentioned. It’s a brutal game, willing to chuck you off any cliff and poison you on the way down. At least, it is at first. Once you become a veteran, that difficulty is second nature, and when you’re thrown from the cliff, as you invariably still are, you’re laughing the entire way down as the poison eats at your innards. What Dark Souls is truly about, for me, is the world in which its set. In every game, players are set down blindly into a completely new and unknown world full of scary things and grand, ancient architecture. The lore in Dark Souls is second to none, in video game terms, and it manages to set this stage without any long text boxes or overt descriptions – it’s all ambient. Blackwing, with its forays into an area known as the Misery in particular, is every bit as grim and large and scary as a good Dark Souls setting. Even in the city of Valengrad, where much of the action takes places, things are grimy and a little sour. The evils of the Deep Kings have seeped into the populace in invisible and insidious ways. This is a grimdark novel to define the word.
I’d like to talk about the Misery some, now that I’ve mentioned its similarity to a Dark Souls zone. The Misery is the result of a spell by Galharrow’s master, Crowfoot, and it’s essentially a massive zone of horror that Crowfoot cast in order to stop the Deep Kings advance into the realm of man. It is a twisting, ever-changing nightmare that only the most hardened veterans are willing to wade into. It is Mordor and The Blight and every other hellscape you’ve ever read about in a fantasy land. But it has an advantage over those other creations in that almost anything can happen in the Misery. McDonald has done himself a great favor by creating a place where his dark imagination can run wild. If he wanted to invent a miniature giraffe with steel skin and fire breath, he could simply claim it as a creation of the Misery and because of the way he has crafted this area, the reader would believe it wholesale. When he has his characters within the confines of this place, the sky is the limit (literally as the Misery blots out the sky to a certain point as well).
I’ve talked exhaustively about setting because I think that is the strongest point of Blackwing, and even if I disliked all the characters and the plot (which I don’t), I would find the land of McDonald’s imagination interesting. So let’s talk about plot.
The story of Blackwing is solid. Ryhalt Galharrow is a widowed mercenary who works sporadically for Crowfoot, his orders coming from the very tattoo that marks his arm and also essentially brands him as Crowfoot’s property. He is gruff and macho to a fault, and also incredibly competent. When a bounty mission to the Misery goes awry, he comes face to face with a woman from his past who will change his life completely. Blackwing is a grim, noir, flintlock-fantasy full of combat, sieges, and horror, and it does these fairly well. I was disappointed in a few of the siege portions of the novel, but I think its plot moves along nicely and does not leave anything unanswered.
McDonald’s characters are equally solid. Ryhalt Galharrow can be frustrating at times, and I feel that McDonald was going for a little too much of a Dirty Harry-style badass – to the point where I started to dislike the rugged mercenary a bit. However, the man has heart, and that always goes a long way with me. His gruffness is also explained by a tortured past the likes of which would cause any man or women to become as grim as his deeds. Ezabeth, the woman from Galharrow’s past, is the better character in my opinion, but that might be largely a matter of personal taste. She is a sorceress, practicing the light-weaving that makes up McDonald’s fairly vague magic system. She is noble, both in title and character, and her intelligence carries the novel forward. Rounding out the cast are a few more mercenaries in Nenn and Tnota, who provide flavor to the novel and companionship to Galharrow, and a cast of villains and pseudo-villains vile enough to make skin crawl. A shout out to the Brides, who are some of the creepiest monsters I’ve seen in a novel and I never want to see them again (though I’m guessing I haven’t seen the last).
In all, I liked Blackwing and am intrigued to see where it goes with Ravencry. McDonald has built a huge conflict in the Nameless versus Deep Kings feud, and setting Ryhalt Galharrow in the middle of that leaves room for a vast array of storytelling. My hope for Ravencry would be to see the world expanded as most of Blackwing is set in Valengrad. I completely need more of the Misery and hope that we haven’t seen the last of it, but I am also interested in seeing what the rest of McDonald’s world looks like. Be warned – Blackwing is not for the faint of heart, and expect to be equal parts grossed out and shocked as you progress through this dark work, but the journey is worth it.