Ravencry by Ed McDonald

Rating 9.0/10
Top quality fantasy, assured and inventive in equal measure, with the kind of pacing that feels like a surging tsunami

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Faith is a powerful motivator. When the chips are down, belief in an uncertainty can serve as sufficient inspiration to rise to a task of near-impossibility. Faith might stem from a fervent adherence to religious beliefs, or devotion to a sovereign figure, or even from love itself. Ed Donald’s Ravencry explores these themes of faith and religion, as well as the dangers of interpreting and channeling the power they can provide.

Four years have passed since the events of Blackwing: Captain Ryhalt Galharrow has grown his business, increased his staff, and was gifted a large home by the city as thanks for the previous book’s events. The Deep Kings have been quiet, and the Range has not had to defend itself from any threat of drudge shambling out of the Misery. On the surface, life has improved, but Galharrow is still devastated and haunted by the loss of a loved one. He won’t return affections to a colleague, even though the mutual attraction is there. He hardly ever goes home and prefers to drown himself in work and alcohol to avoid being along with his thoughts. Visions of his lost companion are getting stronger. And through it all, some strange occurrences begin to happen around the city: other citizens are beginning to have familiar visions inside the phos light. A man that Galharrow has killed shows up alive several weeks later. And worst of all, an item of terrible power has been stolen, and clues of the culprit lead back to a malignant figure in Galharrow’s past who is on the cusp of ascension into unspeakable evil.

As more visions and prophecies begin to cloud the minds of the city, a cult of yellow-hooded believers begins to threaten the hierarchy of the ruling class. As the city begins to descend into chaos and destruction, Ryhalt is forced to investigate how these events are connected, as well as how far his faith will carry him.

One of the more interesting threads that’s woven throughout the story is how far Ryhalt is physically and mentally tested during his investigations. Each test Ryhalt faces leans on a different aspect of Ryhalt’s abilities: he’s pushed to his absolute limit in terms of physical abuse, exhaustion, sanity, and self-sacrifice. He has always believed that the people around him are more important than his own life, so he pushes himself as far as possible with barely a moment’s thought for self-preservation. One might think that his disregard for his own life might be due to his crippling depression, but over time, Ryhalt’s reasoning morphs into something that resembles faith in something better, a belief in something more powerful than anything else the city has shown him. The audience is once again privy to Ryhalt’s inner monologue, so his journey can be difficult to endure at times. But the ultimate payoff is extraordinary. 

Although this review has focused mostly on the ideas of faith and beliefs, let me be clear: there’s also a dizzying amount of violence, excitement, tragedy, and dark humor liberally spread across the back half of the story. Once the halfway point is reached, the pace quickens and the stakes heighten to a point where it was difficult to find a good place to stop, so I powered through it all in one long and nerve-wracking reading session. My only real complaint is that it took half a book to get to this point. There were a lot of pieces necessary to set the table for this story, but there was also a lack of tension or drive to move forward in the beginning chapters. At times, the story felt like it was meandering a bit, and it took a while for events to feel like they carried real narrative weight. All of that was quickly dealt with as the halfway mark neared, but it’s due to a slow opening that I didn’t give this book a higher mark. 

Still, Ravencry is an exceptional middle book of a trilogy: it tells an engaging story that stands on its own two legs. It does an excellent job of incorporating major events that happened in the previous book without leaning too hard on them. It could even serve as an entry point to the series, though I wouldn’t recommend it. In Ravencry, McDonald has crafted a desolate world brimming with creativity and dark fantasy that tests the boundaries of faith and belief. Picking up the mantle of Captain Ryhalt Galhorrow was once again a thrilling and emotional ride, and while the wait for the conclusion of the trilogy will be an arduous one, I have full confidence in McDonald’s writing that he’s saving the best for last.

8.5 / 10 - Adam Weller

5 oh-I-seriously-loved-this stars. 

Where to start with this one? Well, I didn't know what to expect from Ravencry. Often in fantasy series, there's a clear overarching pattern, an obvious direction that allows the reader to guess, at least in part, where the author will be taking it. Things were so wrapped up in Blackwing, that it could almost have been a standalone, so other than the ongoing war between the Deep Kings and the Nameless and the tantalising suggestion of a 'ghost' within the light, there wasn't any specific route I could identify. Now this might or might not work for you, but I found it thrilling to have the future wide open, knowing that I would be facing whatever comes with Galharrow and his strange crew was more than enough.

Set four years after the Siege, things open with relative calm. I mean, Galharrow nearly gets killed within the first 5 minutes, but otherwise Valengrad seems to be pretty much back together and so does our main character. He even has his own office and manor house. Not quite cream, of course, but doing well for himself. This settled beginning threw me, but in a good way- I didn't expect the distance, nor the role of Galharrow as an important part of the state apparatus. Looking back it was essential as a period of calm before the shitstorm, the steady start of a book which had some seriously violent threat escalation page by page. There's a whole hell of a lot more bloody action in this offering. And, of course, the Bright Lady in the light was a clue for this second book after all, allowing zealous religion to join political machinations and the intensifying peril from the Deep Kings to underscore the plot.

The overarching narrative was one of metamorphosis and of journey, and I don't mean that as a simple movement from place to place, though there was a bit of that too- believe me, if you liked the flashes of the Misery in the last book, you're going to love this one. Galharrow is changed, both physically and mentally, by his experiences throughout the novel and you are with him every instant. At first glance, he appears to be a simple man, and he seems to imagine himself this way too, with his sorrows drowned in alcohol and his ever-present inked debt to Crowfoot, yet as he is challenged and his essential character explored, his apparent unlikeable nature conflicts with a deeper personal morality and obligation he feels to those around him. McDonald does this exceptionally well, there's a real sense of rebirth during Galharrow's time in the Misery, it's spiritual and practically psychedelic, an incredible description of madness in a place, with its lethal creatures and ghost-ridden landscape, both supremely real and unreal at once.

There's no resorting to easy morality or simple choices here. This is a dangerous world, where decisions made might best be described as being marginally less shit than the other options, or which have to be whatever ones that keep you alive. Necessity rules. And yet, like Blackwing, Ravencry avoids being straight grim by allowing hope and love to hold their place within the darkness. It's this that allows the tragedy to be more keenly felt, for the broken expectation of better days is a knife to the heart.

This is top quality fantasy, assured and inventive in equal measure, with the kind of pacing that feels like a surging tsunami- an unstoppable maelstrom building to impossible heights before crashing down in a fury of destruction. I have no doubt this will be one of my best reads of the year.

ARC via Netgalley.

9.5/10 - Emma Davis

This Ravencry book review was written by and Emma Davis

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