The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks book cover
Rating 8.0/10
A premise that should be as catnip to cats for most of us fantasy readers

I received an ARC provided by Harper Voyager via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

‘Would you rather be a tarantula, or a hairless cat?’ Do I have your attention? :)

The Black Hawks has a premise that should be as catnip to cats for most of us fantasy readers. Morally ambiguous, indolent mercenaries with a lack of ambition, loyalty and compassion who tend to be in the wrong side of the winning/losing column? Hell yeah, sign me up! Twice!

This first book in the Articles of Faith series introduces us straight away to the protagonist, Chel. He is nothing special and seems a bit unhappy with his current predicament; a man sworn in service to a lord who is also Chel’s step-uncle. Chel seems to be dodging his duties as a sworn knight, duties that are nothing like he imagined, when a sudden attack on the city by foreign invaders changes his life instantly. As all seems lost, he flees the beset city with a stolen horse and cart, and before long he makes the shocking discovery of a royal stowaway. Tarfel Merimonsun, Junior Prince of Vistirlar.

They make a deal  - Chel will get prince Tarfel to safety and he will free Chel from service to his step-uncle. Win win. Chel is no warrior though, and while he has a knack for being lucky and his courage belies his size, things go south faster than a wolf on a downslope, and pretty soon they are kidnapped by a band of mercenaries known as the Black Hawks.

I have to be honest. The story was a slow starter and I felt my attention wandering early on. Chel and the prince were not uninteresting, but they could not hold the story together on their own for 300 odd pages and I started having doubts. About 60 pages in though the magic happened. The Black Hawks arrived. Folks, I could read five hundred pages about this rag-tag band followed by five hundred more. And then some. It is fitting that they are the namesake of the book as these are a bunch of ruffians that could narrate a phonebook onto the bestsellers list. Don’t get me wrong though - this isn't a laugh-a-minute adventure with some gory action in between. Oh, it has elements of all that and more, but at its heart this is a grim-darkish character-driven fantasy that has just the right amount of humour to lighten things up.

Never fight fair, never spare a killing blow, never consider for a moment that what’s on the other end of your blade is another living, thinking, dreaming, human being. Your enemy is your enemy, understand? You start playing the wondering game, someone will kill  you.’
‘That’s … grim.’
‘That’s life, fuck-o. Deal with it or let it go.’

This being a debut book, I had never heard of David Wragg before setting my eyes on that glorious cover by the ever popular Richard Anderson, whose work you might recognise if you have enjoyed Nicolas Eames’ The Band series. I had no idea what to expect, but am overjoyed to yet again be treated to such brilliant characterization as has been a staple feature of many debut fantasy authors recently. I can't say this enough, but what a great time it is to be a reader of fantasy! Chel & the prince, while not winning me over at first encounter, have great development over the course of the tale, staking their own claims on the spotlight. No mean feat, given the company they keep. The mercenaries have the kind of chemistry that movie execs dream about and the relationships and politics within the mercenary band were almost as gripping as the action, and that’s not even mentioning the banter, the dialogue.

Hush and listen, this could save your life some day.’
‘Oh?’
‘Aye, “oh”. See, thing is, most people, they don’t get hit by arrows much.’
‘That so?’
‘Indeedy.
So, if and when they do, they don’t know what to do. They think that’s it, and they should just keel over, curl up their toes, back to the ancestors.’
‘Whereas …?’
‘Ah, you can fight on with an arrow in you! You can fight on with a dozen, like a fucken pin-cushion. I knew a fella, a Clydish man, mark you, not like one of you northern piss-sheets, fought on with sixteen arrows, two spears and a sword in him. Carried on for hours, cracking heads and ripping limbs.’‘
And he lived?’
Well, no, but he didn’t lie down and die at the first blow, did he?’
‘So what’s the big secret? If you’re hit by an arrow, don’t die?’
‘Aye. That’s the secret: don’t die.’

Whilst world-building is not one of the main building blocks of this story, references to battles past and the history of the world is interspersed throughout and gives the sense of a much larger world that even the main characters only know a smattering of. I am happy though that the focus is more on the characters and plot, as it keeps the pace up and let's face it; with characters such as these you want to keep the spotlight on them. Before moving on, I cannot help but give a shout out to my personal favourite, a possible sufferer of lupophobia, the one, the only, Lemon.

‘Oh aye, right, into the mountains we go. No bother there. Not like there’s fucken wolves and bears and whatnot. Always fucken wolves. Wildlife, shitehawks all. If I see a fucken wolf I’m gonna brain it with a fucken hammer and wear its flat head like a fucken hat. No fucken wolf better come near me. Lemon the wolf-hammer, that’s what they call me. Too fucken right, wolfy, just you try it. Just you show me your little wolfy teeth. I’ll have your fucken tail to clean my arse.’

*cough* more Lemon please *cough*

Action is of course, what mercenaries live for and the book does not skimp. There are quite a few battles, ambushes and even a moment of horror to keep things tense, but David Wragg does not let up with some great escalation towards the end, culminating in a moment or two that will have you going “wait, WHAT?”, right before delivering a lovely little cliffhanger.

I’m not a big fan of cliffhangers. But I’ll allow it. Once.  ;)

Definitely recommended!

The Black Hawks is released on 3 October 2019 and there is a lovely sprayed edge version (red) being released by Goldsboro if you are in the UK. I would pre-order. They are going to sell out fast.

The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

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