Crowfall by Ed McDonald

Crowfall book cover
Rating 8.3/10
McDonald’s world of elder gods, torn reality, and light magic is dark fantasy at its finest.

When facing duress for long periods of time, sanity can be fleeting. It’s no stretch of the imagination to see how prisoners, hostages, or fugitives can be driven toward poor decision-making when lives are at stake. If the stakes are raised to apocalyptic levels, then any form of predictive behavior becomes unreliable. Enter: Ryhalt Galharrow. Savior of Valengrad. Captain on the Blackwings. Desolate madman. Ed McDonald’s previous novel Ravencry concluded with Ryhalt leaving Valengrad to go live in the Misery for reasons unknown. Crowfall picks up six years later. Six long years living in madness, constantly poisoning your body and mind. But what is it all for? And is it worth it in the end?

Galharrow is still reeling from losing his love Ezabeth to the phos light. He has shunned himself from civilization, only visiting the Range to re-up his meager supplies. He subsists on consuming the raw flesh of Misery creatures, which also gives him the ability to navigate without needing the moons to point his way. Ryhalt begins to become one with the Misery, tapping into its vast, horrific powers but losing his sanity each day. Ghosts of his past visit him daily, and the line between reality and madness starts to blur into non-existence.

Why has Ryhalt chosen this path? This is one of the great mysteries of the story, and we begin to piece together parts of his ultimate plan as some of his co-conspirators come under threat. This mystery works both for and against the story. Not knowing why Ryhalt is doing what he’s doing is enticing, but it also becomes frustrating at times because we don’t understand his motivations for most of his decisions. I enjoyed how McDonald kept forcing the reader to question Ryhalt’s actions, as he is clearly being driven insane. Are there enough shreds of Ryhalt’s morality left to achieve his goals, or will he lose himself entirely to the Misery?

New characters and new locations help separate Crowfall from its predecessors, and McDonald takes full advantage of his new cast and environments. Themes of treachery, regret, and sacrifice are leaned on heavily, and it culminates into an emotional final act.

However.

The end of the story did not sit well with me. Some of the decisions made by the main cast seemed incredibly shortsighted and out of character. Some big revelations left me scratching my head, and there was an explicit Deus Ex Machina that attempted to wrap up the story but didn’t quite land with me. It was difficult not to let the ending affect how I felt about the rest of the book, which was largely entertaining, fast-paced, and original. But I’m still hung up on why certain plans were made, as it felt like a wild deviation from everything up to this point.

Ryhalt is a stubborn fool, but he tries to do the right thing… usually. Getting a first-person perspective of him slowly descending into madness is an appealing hook that I quite enjoyed. Although I didn’t agree with some of the content decisions made at the end of the story, Ryhalt’s journey is still well worth taking. McDonald’s world of elder gods, torn reality, and light magic is dark fantasy at its finest. I hope to return to the Misery again someday, and I’ll be sure to pack my own lunch.

7.5 / 10

-- Adam Weller

Crowfall provides a spectacularly epic conclusion to a trilogy that has the potential to haunt your nightmares in its creepiness; it’s so dark, so bleak and so wonderfully written. Everything is brought together here perfectly, a very clever ending indeed! 

And I must admit, I’m pleasantly surprised. Going into this I felt that there was a little too much to conclude in just one book, but it all slots together. Ed McDonald demonstrates his ability for planning as he delivers the final strokes of the story with a bloody flourish. Those final few pages left me in a gut-wrenching state of suspense because I felt like this could have gone anywhere. It could have had a happy ending or a brutal one (or something in between the two.) I really couldn’t call it, and that’s important because nobody wants to read a predictable book. 

It would be remiss not to talk about character growth here. As soon as Blackwing opens, it is clear Galharrow is not a typical protagonist. His best is clearly past him as he approaches his middling years in a cloud of alcohol induced depression. His enthusiasm for life wanes with each fight he is forced to partake in. He is a man that is plodding through life, acting the motions when he is totally drained and inflicted by the memories of his failures. Here though it is clear from the very first chapter that he has changed. He has found a purpose and is willing to do anything to achieve it; he is willing to infuse himself with dark and dangerous magic in order to become so strong that he can face his enemies alone. And that’s kind of a big deal because he is sworn to carry out the bidding of his master, the nameless god Crowfoot. He is playing a risky game and a dangerous one because his enemies could crush him with a thought. 

Everyone is power hungry. Hungry for wealth or prestige. Hungry for immortality or potent magic. And Galharrow has truly had enough. He is tired of serving and he is tired of being stuck in the middle of this never-ending power struggle. So, he has decided to invest in himself and to trust solely in himself to make the right choice when the time comes. I was so glad to see it. He has always had an independent mind and now he is brave enough to assert it and do exactly what he thinks is right. His plan is insane, but it is also the only road he could take because he is in this to win. All or nothing. This made the book much more direct. Galharrow didn’t spend any time trying to untangle someone else’s mess like he has in the past. This is the end game, and it is tremendous. Never doubt a man who willing to sacrifice everything he is for those he loves. 

Ed McDonald’s work is up there with the best of the genre. As such this series is required reading for fans of Joe Abercrombie, Peter Newman and Anna Smith Spark. I will certainly be reading anything else he writes in the future. I’d be a fool not to. 

Thank you to Ace/ Penguin Random House for providing me with an ARC to review for Fantasy Book Review. - Sean Barrs 9/10 

This Crowfall book review was written by

We interviewed Ed McDonald on 2018-06-24

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