REVIEW: Crowfall by Ed McDonald

Our team were so excited for book three of the Raven’s Mark series that we’re going to do a GdM first and publish two reviews of this book. Below you’ll find reviews by Durand Welsh (who reviewed Blackwing and Ravencry here on GdM) and James Tivendale. Warning: being the third book in a trilogy, there is obviously a few spoilers int he words below, so read warily oh thee fantasy traveller.

Review 1: Durand

Ed McDonald’s Raven’s Mark series is played out against the backdrop of an endless war between humanity and the Deep Kings, god-like beings intent on the subjugation of all mankind. In their fight, humanity is aided by the Nameless, wizards who have themselves ascended to near god-like status but whose ultimate aims are inscrutable.

Crowfall is the third novel, and as in the previous two novels, the protagonist is Captain Ryhalt Galharrow, an enforcer of the Nameless called Crowfoot. Over six years have passed since the previous novel, Ravencry, and Ryhalt is now eking out a hermit’s existence deep within the magical wasteland called the Misery. His exposure to the Endless Devoid, the Misery’s heart, has warped him in both body and soul. He now has superhuman physical gifts and has acquired the unique ability to navigate the Misery without astronomical tools, but he also suffers from hallucinatory visions and the slow corruption of his humanity.

His self-imposed exile is a routine, directionless one, until an emissary from the Nameless arrives to inform him that Crowfoot, grievously weakened in a previous battle with the Deep Kings, has forged a new apocalyptic weapon that is the last hope for the war. Galharrow must journey once more to the city of Valengrad to answer the summons and execute Crowfoot’s plan.

Suffice to say, what follows isn’t straightforward, and no end of complications arise. Galharrow’s old friends are embroiled in dangerous troubles of their own, the current Marshal of Valengrad despises him, and someone has been murdering Crowfoot’s other captains. A few bloody fights later, Galharrow has cleared a path through to the first major task in Crowfoot’s plan: the requisition of the heart of an eons-dead monstrosity referred to simply as the ice fiend. The fiend, as befits a creature whose heart can power a doomsday device, is located in a frozen waste accessible only through the Duskland Gate, a portal harnessing the power of death itself. Tough going, and it only gets tougher.

The other Nameless, as Galharrow discovers shortly after arriving in Valengrad, have also sent forth their own representatives into the city: Nall has sent Valiya, Galharrow’s one-time romantic interest, but now gifted with the abilities of a mathematical savant; the Lady of Waves has sent her captain, the coldly efficient killer North; Shallowgrave has sent the inhuman soldiers known as the Marble Guard.

Ostensibly, the Nameless are united in a last ditch attempt to save humanity, but Galharrow is a cynical man at the best of times, and he knows that betrayal is only a matter of time. Even Amaira, who he thinks of as one would a daughter, is now one of Crowfoot’s captains, and the bonds to her Nameless master overshadow the old ties he and her once shared. Then there is Ezabeth, Galharrow’s one true love, lost somewhere in the magical aether of the Light and an unknown quantity in the upcoming final battle with the Deep Kings.

Amaira, Ezabeth and Valiya are familiar faces, and there is no shortage of characters from the previous novels. In addition to those already cited, returning readers will recognise Maldon, Dantry, Nenn (or at least her ghost), Tnota and others.

In fact much of Crowfall’s conflict stems from Galharrow having to navigate relationships that were established in the previous books but which now must be dealt with on new terms. Tnota’s loyalty to him comes into conflict with Tnota’s newfound domestic life; his former comrades Dantry and Maldon are wanted fugitives with an unknown agenda; Valiya is professional and emotionally distant towards him following their parting in Ravencry; Amaira is a woman grown with no need of his protection.

My only gripe here is that the quantity of characters from past books doesn’t give each of them a lot of room to develop. This is understandable, as McDonald has to cram two books worth of characters plus a cast of new characters into the new book, but at times the characterisation feels pared down.

That, though, is a minor criticism. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Crowfall. While Blackwing is my favourite of the three Raven’s Mark novels – the prose, dialogue and world are a bit fresher and the cast of characters more tightly circumscribed – I preferred Crowfall to Ravencry. Crowfall reprises Blackwing’s darkness and sense of impending doom, and is as bleak and grim a novel as fantasy offers.

While I think it would be possible for a reader to jump in with this novel, it would be nowhere near as rewarding an experience as beginning with Blackwing. One of the pleasures of this novel is seeing the culmination of Galharrow’s journey, and witnessing how events in previous novels have changed him and influenced his destiny. Crowfall is certainly a worthy resolution to Galharrow’s tale, and if you’ve read the previous two novels, you won’t be disappointed.

Review 2: James

“Another Heart of the Void? The sky is shattered, the rain sends men mad. Even the geese are trying to eat us. What the fuck do we have to gain by unleashing that kind of power again?”

I received an advanced reading copy of Crowfall in exchange for an honest review. I would like to thank Ed McDonald and Ace Books for the opportunity. May contain spoilers for Ravencry.

Crowfall is an engaging and thrilling final chapter to an excellent dark fantasy trilogy. I have seen the Raven’s Mark series referred to as Grimheart. I thought that tag was a joke initially but the more I have thought about it the more fitting the label actually seems. However chaotic, gruesome, or terrible things may seem in this world there are always underlining currents of hope and love.

This narrative is set six years after the conclusion of Ravencry when Shavada was blasted from the grandspire’s roof and the city was saved. We see a very different Ryhalt Galharrow. Since that event, the Blackwing Captain has been residing in isolation in the Misery. Eating the monstrosities that lurk within the land, conversing with the ghosts that haunt it, and every night returning to the Always House, a comfortable country cottage, seemingly unaffected by the magic of the Misery except that it resets once a day. The reason for Galharrow’s need to be alone and in the Misery of all places is unclear but the Misery has changed him and become a part of him. He’s become an expert navigator and converses with the Misery frequently. He is even referred to as the ‘son of the Misery.’ Although he’s been living as a hermit it seems everybody wants Galharrow eradicated, from the Nameless to the men of the Citadel. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Deep Kings now have an Emperor and are looking to march on the living with their Drudge army. Galharrow knows he has an important part to play in the upcoming war.

I’ve always enjoyed following Galharrow’s first-person perspective. He’s such a likable character throughout the series although he really shouldn’t be. In Ravencry he was traipsing around the fringes of madness however for parts of Crowfall he is as good as insane. It’s written and presented in expert fashion and as a reader, I tried to analyse reality and exactly what was going on in Galharrow’s mind.

The characters that have been crafted by McDonald are brilliant and jump off the page here. Series mainstays such as the aging navigator Tnota and no-nosed violence adoring Major Nenn (even though she’s dead) are as important as ever in Crowfall. Joining these and other players such as Dantry, Maldon, and Valiya are new and influential characters such as sharp-eyed shooter North and marble guardian, First.

I’m not sure what the technical phrasing is but the way McDonald wrote led me to create amazing visuals of all the places frequented and portraits of all the characters in my mind. I was so engaged that I almost felt that I was there alongside Galharrow throughout his adventures and struggles. I was fully invested in him and the narrative as a whole.

I won’t divulge too much information about what takes place in Crowfall other than that there are so many standout moments and stunning set-pieces. As the conclusion to one of my favourite recent fantasy series, I was not disappointed by any aspect. In a few years time when fans of dark fantasy think of standout characters in the genre, Galharrow is a name that will be uttered alongside Jorg, Geralt, and Locke Lamora. The finale was epic, lasted for about twenty percent of the novel and often left me breathless with the battles, showdowns, twists, awesome reveals, and betrayals. Essentially it had everything I required on my epic fantasy bingo card. Blackwing remains one of my favourite ever books. The following two books in the series never quite reached the lofty heights but are still pretty damn awesome. This is a series that needs to be read by all dark fantasy and grimdark fans.

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.

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