Symphony of the Wind by Steven McKinnon (The Raincatcher's Ballad #1)

Dalthea is recovering from the war with the Idari, parts of the city still closed off due to the horrifyingly destructive power of an ignogen fusion bomb, dropped on what will be known forevermore as the Night of the Amberfire, when thousands died and the Dalthean fleet was destroyed. Even now, the threat of the Idari’s return feeds the political machinations of Prime Councillor Thackeray, allowing for ever tightening Orwellian style security measures, but unrest is growing. The kingdom is built on ignicite and needs only a tinder spark to explode. When a Raincatcher ship, the Liberty Wind, is targeted, suspicion turns to enemies within the state. And the ignited fire roars.

That all sounds exciting, but I’m not going to lie, the first two chapters didn’t have me. I had this weird issue because I wasn’t sure of the genre and it felt a bit too steampunk, which is not my thing at all, and I just didn’t get it. Then there’s a moment in the third chapter where Gallows and Damien, two Hunters (mercs), get sent out on a grunt job and encounter a snake problem more sizeable than they imagined and I was so stunned by how much I was enjoying myself that I had to actually put the book down and think about it for a good few minutes. Totally blindsided. That feeling didn’t much change until the last page. This book is insane and it has everything. I’m pretty convinced the author wrote a checklist of all the cool shit a writer can put in a novel, then methodically went through ticking it all off. If someone had told me that before I started, it would have been a hard nope from me, but he makes it work. You want a terrifying underground Doom/Resident Evil style fight against genetically altered animals and undead monsters? You got it. You want a Star Wars style fighter battle in the sky? Yep, it’s here. You want brutal one on one fights? Present. You want larger fights against desperate odds? Oh boy, you’re in for a treat. You want death? Bucketloads. You want humour? Laughs galore. You want characters to love like they’re your own child? Take a handful. You want villains who just won’t goddamn die? Neither do I, but you got ‘em anyway. You want conspiracies, surprises, magic? Done, done, and done. It’s a big book and he’s got it all in there. 

To say that it’s action packed is a serious understatement, but there’s more than enough space for character development, and certainly enough time to make you fall hard for the people who make up the rag tag group of main POVs. Each time anyone’s in mortal peril it gives you heart palpitations. People die in this world. And some of them stay dead. It’s complicated, with the whole Wraith thing, but trust me when I say that your favourites are in danger. They might have that last minute reprieve, or they might not. There’s a suddenness to it, a lightening strike that switches things from bad to seriously very bad in an instant. The pace flies. Sometimes it’s so quick that I missed parts of what went on because I was too eager to find out what happens next…and I had to go back and read it again. You know that thing where your eyes keep flicking down to catch a glimpse of the next bit no matter how many times you try to stop yourself? That.

The world building is encyclopaedic, with a comprehensive system of government, religion, society, and culture. It’s fleshed out through layers of detail and a full vocabulary- everything from tech and weaponry to gods and myth, all inserted seamlessly into the narrative so it never has to be ponderously over-explained. There’s a weight to it, a known, multilayered history and a sense of the past reaching out to affect today. Though the action all takes place in Dalthea, the wider world is present and connected by travel, trade, and war. It’s a diverse place, with a multitude of different types of people. Skin colour is rarely mentioned but names are suggestive of ethnic variety and the persecution of anyone with Idari blood, regardless of how far back in the family line, as well as the identification of the ‘other’ or ‘foreigner’ as targets and scapegoats is pointed in its veracity. Women of all types are excellently portrayed- complex individuals with roles throughout all levels of society, from Guildmaster to soldier, politician to prostitute. The main female character, Serena, is young but not stupid as a result of plot-necessity. She makes mistakes through inexperience and innocence, but makes up for it by saving the day more than once. She's got intelligence, courage, and attitude- it's refreshing. Her self discovery could easily have become overwrought, especially with the whole discovering-her-powers thing, but she has such an amusing youthful dismissiveness that is properly appealing. She’s all: so you want me to believe all this propaganda you’re sprouting? Cool. But you know I don’t, right? That snark doesn’t end with her either, it’s threaded through the book and it’s where a good deal of the humour originates. Even the bad guys are at it. 

The two principal male characters are just as beguiling. Gallows, with his tortured past (actually tortured as well as the usual emotional/mental type), aching to die but desperate to find out what happened to his fiancée. Damien, with his violent past and ongoing self control issues of the most deadly sort. Both repeatedly put in situations where their morality and resolve is tested: will they succumb to their darker desires or rise to the heroic occasion? The underlying theme proposes that when it comes down to it, there are people and ideals worth fighting for. Not just in the sense of picking up a sword and stabbing holes in living/dead things, but arguably a much harder battle, combatting your own baser nature, the desire for blood or revenge or whatever. Think that means you get a happy ending? Well, you’ll have to read it and see…

I’ve been trying to think of some critical things to say about the book as this early SPFBO round as we tend to judge quite harshly, but in the high of just finishing, I can’t think of much. Other than the first two chapters not really engaging me and maybe that some scenes could be tightened up a bit. Technically, this has been done exceptionally well, it read like something that had been traditionally published, skilfully written and decently edited. Regardless of how far this book goes in the competition, it deserves more readers. Honestly, I flat out loved it and I’m looking forward to the next instalment already. In the meantime, there’s a prequel novella called The Fury Yet To Come which is free if you sign up to the author’s newsletter- it won’t be staying on my TBR for long.

-- Emma Davis, 9.0 / 10

I’ve thought a lot about this book over the past couple of weeks. Not only because I recently finished it, but because I had to compare it to several other excellent novels in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off contest. We at Fantasy Book Review have decided to push this book forward as our selected finalist, and I think it will do very well against anything else in the competition. And yet. And yet! Even though this book has dominated my headspace for the month of December, I am still at a loss on how to accurately describe this book to anyone else. In a blog writeup from earlier today, I attempted the following elevator pitch:

Steve McKinnon’s debut (!) fantasy novel Symphony of the Wind is a post-steampunk military fantasy with enough stirring action sequences to rival Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’ series. It deals with post-war PTSD, political propaganda and conspiracies, organized crime, celebrity culture, environmental threats, and a smattering of Greek mythology. It has characters you love who will die, and characters you hate that just won’t go away. And somehow, it is also funny as hell.

But that still leaves out so much of the story. I could go into detail about the massive chase scenes, violent sieges, numerous gun-and-sword battles, thrilling air combat, secret underground bunker labs gone awry, human experimentation, non-human experimentation, mind control, radiation-afflicted beasts, and enough breathtaking set pieces to fill a summer blockbuster trilogy at the cineplex. I could talk about how Gallows must be allergic to buildings because every time he enters one, there’s a 50% chance it’s about to collapse. But none of that would matter at all unless the characters weren’t people you cared for, and this is an area where McKinnon excelled. 

Two years after an enemy bomb wiped out thousands of lives, the city of Dalthea is a chaotic mix of peoples and races that are struggling to survive. Water is scarce, drugs are rampant, organized crime permeates all levels of government, and the enemy Idari are consolidating forces across the sea. There is a wide cast of characters that runs the gamut in representing this city of the edge of annihilation, but we mostly focus on two: Serena, an orphaned teen, interns on a water-gathering airship while dreaming of running a crew of her own, and Tyson Gallows, a former soldier with a broken soul, who works as a government-sanctioned Hunter but secretly prays for an end to his living nightmare. We also spend time with various airship captains, religious zealots, criminal kingpins, soldiers, scholars, and whatever the hell Damien is. Somehow McKinnon has instilled enough character and personality into nearly his entire cast where it feels like they all have their own desires and agendas and are all given the spotlight to further their own personal journeys as well as the story at large. 

The world-building is trickled in at a steady pace throughout the book. There was only one section that could have been considered an exposition dump, but it fit perfectly into the context of the scene to help the characters understand the ramifications of what was really going on. It takes a couple of chapters before I was able to start grasping the scope of this story, but once things started to escalate, it was a bullet train of action and emotion for the remaining six-hundred pages.

Yes, this is only the first book in the series, and I understand why some might not want to start something new and then wait years until it’s fully written. Let me stress that this book has a definitive and satisfying ending. There are certainly threads that carry over to future books in the series, but do not hesitate to treat this story as a standalone adventure. Much like Chris Wooding’s The Ember Blade, this book does an excellent job of telling a fully-realized tale, while whetting your appetite for what the future may bring. And for Steve McKinnon and fans of The Raincatcher’s Ballad, that future is bright, indeed. 

-- Adam Weller, 9.0 / 10

9/10 We flat out loved it

Reviews by and Adam Weller

Steven McKinnon interview

Symphony of the Wind reader reviews

9/10 from 1 reviews

All Steven McKinnon Reviews