This is a book that both inspired me and broke me.
I saw a review on the British Fantasy Society site and, re-reading the blurb, was drawn in by the mention of the raven tattoo ripping itself from the protagonist’s arm to ‘deliver a desperate message’ and the concept of ‘the Misery’ (a possible reworking of the old myth of the Wasteland?).
Its protagonist is no Perceval. Ryhalt Galharrow is a Blackwing captain who, with his troops, spends most of his time hunting down dangerous enemies to the Republic in the Misery. He is magically bound to Crowfoot, one of the Nameless (one of the many paradoxes in these books is that they have names but they aren’t their real names), near-immortal wizards who side with the Republic against the Deep Kings. His tattoo, the Raven’s Mark, is Crowfoot’s means of communication.
The book is set almost a century after the devastating battle in which Nall, one of the Nameless, released the spell called ‘the Heart of the Void’ that created the Misery, fracturing the skies and all sense of direction, irreparably changing everything it did not kill. Its monsters are not of the kind you would usually find in fantasy books and here McDonald stands out by the genius of his imagination.
The most memorable, to me, are the gillings. ‘Two feet tall’ ‘naked, pot-bellied and red as a raw burn’, ‘hairless and yellow-eyed’, they are hauntingly trapped in the moment of the impact repeating the same words “seventy-three, seventy-two”, “evening, master, care for a good time?” “The roads are a mess.” Their bite numbs and paralyses meaning they can eat you alive in your sleep without you feeling a thing. There are also squeams, dulchers, ghosts playing out past events. Then there are those who serve the Deep Kings – malevolent children called Darlings with their mind-worms, huge seductresses called Brides, and the Drudge with their ‘blank noseless faces’.
At first I thought I would hate Galharrow, stereotyping him as a typical macho male. There are lots of reason to dislike him. His language is foul. He’s a perpetual drunk. He doesn’t learn from his mistakes. But as I learnt more about him and his past and what he’s hardened against I grew to sympathise with him, empathise with him, to care about him as his story unfolded beneath the broken and sobbing skies. I also felt a rapport with Nenn, his best friend, a swordswoman with a wooden nose, who equals him in battle and drinking at the bar.
Ezabeth Tanza is complex and intriguing. She’s ‘cream’ (of noble descent) yet she’s also a Spinner and uses her power to make a stand against the abuse of the Talents who are worked to death in the mills weaving phos from the three moons to power Nall’s Engine – the last defence against the armies of the Deep Kings. An old love from Galharrow’s past, she has just as many secrets, but I’d say is the stronger of the pair. I don’t usually connect with or enjoy romance, but their relationship, also one of deep friendship and sacrifice, tugged on the strings of my heart and provides the emotional core of this, at times, overwhelmingly heart-breaking book.
It’s possible to read into Blackwing analogies of nuclear disaster, environmental crisis, and capitalist exploitation. There’s a mystical depth. The Misery, with its distortions of space and time, may be seen to share parallels with the Celtic Otherworld. Yet it also works fine as a gritty well-crafted action adventure.
What inspired me and broke me was the combination of the awesome and awfulness of the setting, the intensity of the trials of the characters, and the sheer unpredictability of the plot – twisting and turning like a corvid’s dream. I’ve never read anything quite like it before and know from now on I will be measuring everything I read and write against it.