Ravencry by Ed McDonald

Blackwing by Ed McDonald was one of the best debuts of last year that put the shine and focus right back into the grim dark genre, proving that this sub-genre still breathes life and this was done in a fairly stylistic engrossing manner ticking all the right boxes. Ed McDonald's series, Raven's Mark opens up in the best possible manner with this compelling tale of love, loss and sacrifices. There was so much to cheer about: the assured virtuoso writing, the cold black truths delivered in layers of black humour, the hard-edged but oh-so-real characters, the magic system  and of course the amazing places like Valengrad and the Misery that come alive on the pages. 

In Ravencry, Ed McDonald has delivered a winning sequel that takes everything that was good with the debut and then cranks it up manifold. Grim to the core, with nonstop relentless action that just ups and sweeps you along to a thundering climax, this one also feels a lot more personal. The pain and the longing of the characters are chief themes throughout the book. There are Lovecraftian monsters galore as we take a prolonged psychedelic absolutely mental trip right into the depths of Misery. And of course, our beloved characters go through an absolutely gruesome grind as new powers are rising and they are greedy. 

**** Warning - spoilers for the first book here ****

Blackwing ended with the cataclysmic siege on the border city of Valengrad and Ezabeth Tanza having sacrificed herself in an explosion of the pho-light to quell the advances of the Deep King Shavada. Now four years later, there are rumours of people seeing this apparition at night in the sky, a  ghost they call the Lady of the Bright Light whom some people believe, is going to liberate the city from under the yoke of the privileged high-born rulers. Ryhalt Galharrow, the Blackwing Captain in service to this ancient powerful being called Crowfoot is leading an almost 'retired' life. Chained to the desk, with an extraordinarily efficient manager Valiya, running his daily affairs and keeping the desk uncluttered and living in a mansion with an adopted orphan called Amaira who is way too curious for her own good and has ambitions to join the Blackwing. His friends from the first book, Tnota and Nenn have all accepted this life of peace within Valengrad in their own ways. Nenn has joined back into the military and when not abusing or slugging her incompetent senior officers, is actually trying to settle down to a normal domestic life. The first half of the book is relatively calmer and a bit slow with overarching events unfolding with a trundling pace that doesn't get our nerves jacked up enough. There is the curious case of a dead man revived who tries to kill Ryhalt as he investigates this piece of information that a group of men/women navigated their way into Misery only to confer with a 'darling' ( One of this magically twisted beings corrupted by the power and magic of the Deep Kings with enough power to blast a living being to smithereens) And then there is an audacious theft of a relic powerful enough to turn the tide of the war between the Nameless and the Deep Kings. And of course there is a growing unrest among the populace, whipped up into a rebellious mood by the followers of this new cult who believe that the Lady in the Bright Light will deliver them to better days. 

Ryhalt, dealing with heart break and loss that he never admits even to himself, is confronted by all this in addition to the complicated feelings that he's got for Valiya. And then of course there is Maldon, the Darling from book-one, a battle-spinner who was captured by Shavada and corrupted to become this immortal man-child being who now lives inside Ryhalt's mansion as his adopted son; drinking and experimenting with explosives. Things hit a flash point when Thierro one of his old army-mates resurfaces as a devout of the new cult, demanding answers just when the Deep Kings, inactive for a while now resurface with an intense attack on the city - raining down lightning and destruction all across. 

The religious sect angle is the most overt theme throughout the book - the oppressed hanging onto shreds of false hope that there is a goddess coming to save their sorry lot. Pretty much a reflection of real life and how faith gets a foothold in our hearts. Ryhalt's journey is a lot more personal this time. Having never really recovered from the loss of Ezabeth Tanza, he still nurses hope against hope, that she would come back into the mortal realm. And then there's this absolutely crazed out foray into the heart of the Misery, a place known as the Endless Void where Ryhalt goes through a painful, psychedelic transformation. His blade-edged personality that grates on your nerves actually is a cover for a deep sense of moral obligation and the need to protect and save those he loves. After having lost Tanza, he is in pain and now would go to any extent to make sure he doesn't fuck up with his close ones, Valiya and Amaira. His personal thoughts are tinged with enough humour to keep things on the boil. 

I loved the new characters introduced, especially Valiya. Confident, self assured and the perfect foil to the confused, overworked mental makeup of Ryhalt. Tnota brings a brief respite to the grim proceedings with his light hearted humour but I thought the exchanges between Maldon and Ryhalt really were a hoot. I would love to see a lot more of Maldon. Nenn comes back, her usual swearing self unchecked and wild and is one of the key pieces of this story coming into its own by the second half, the pacing just gets way more urgent and the overhanging sense of doom seeps in.  

Ravencry is inventive and assured in equal measure, Ed firmly establishing himself as a fantasy great with this outing. While yes this book definitely reads like a standalone, I think that would be disservice to Ed who has established this mindblowing world of grim darkness and brutality unparalleled, of a border-city teetering on the edge of a ravaged desert populated by horrors straight out of Lovecraft's imagination and in Ryhalt Galharrow, a broken hero whose courage and humour will win your hearts. This is one of the finest epics and it is building up to be a maelstrom that will sweep you away. Can't wait to get out to the Misery again with Captain Ryhalt! 


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