Thoroughly enjoyed reading Ed McDonald’s Black Wing, a work set in a fantasy world where Deep Kings and Nameless Demi-Gods vie for control in a eternal war that has been ongoing for millennia with no signs of stopping. It’s a fast paced hot and gritty novel full of action and a noirish and grimdark cast of characters. The main character is a Bounty hunter Ryhalt Galharrow, a Captain in the Black Wing’s a small mercenary organization run by one of the Nameless: Crowfoot.
Ryhalt is a fallen aristocrat, a man who after killing a rival long ago in his youth, driven out of his family – disowned and exiled, has made his home on the edge of the Misery. The Misery is a no-man’s land of toxic and terrible magicks, a DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that separates human civilization from the Kingdoms of Old Dhojara where the Deep Kings and their minions hold sway. The Misery itself was produced by the destruction in the last great war by a Nameless who blasted it with a dark and voidic magick which left the lands scarred and poisonous, a region where strange and bewildering creatures roam so full of vile and degrading corruption that humans who venture too far into those realms are usually never heard from again.
Valengrad is the home of this motley crew of bounty hunters, along with several forts or stations set along the borders of the Misery. There are strange creatures of power called Spinners who draw down the light of the three moons and store them in specialized batteries and cannisters to be used to light up the cities and forts, as well as for battle mages who blast the fell enemy in times of altercations. I found the use of this new kind of magick quite intriguing in that the whole story is based around an ancient Engine which is uses this moon magick as a device of protection against the Deep Kings and their forces. The narrative structure of the tale is somewhat based on a mystery surrounding this great Engine housed in Valengrad, but I’ll let the reader explore that on her own since it would introduce a spoiler.
I want go into details beyond that else it would spoil the story for you. What I do like is that McDonald gives us a reluctant hero whose past haunts him and drives him to a life based on those dark memories. The novel is seen through his eyes, unlike many new works which shift among different characters. McDonald’s work reminds me of a lot of hard-boiled crime fiction I like to read with characters that are not bound by some political, social, or religious creed as much as they are by their own broken lives and bitter choices along the way. One never truly escapes the past, and most of these characters have tainted memories that have brought them to this frontier town on the edge of a dark apocalyptic landscape to face life on their own terms against all odds.
I’d love to introduce the cast of characters but it would ruin the plot and story to go much beyond the basic appearance. There’s Ninn, Ryhault’s right-hand backup, a woman with a quick wit and temper, full of cynical and pitiless humor, she’s the one who calls Ryhault’s bluff on things, speaks from the gut, and tells it how it is no hold’s bar. We know she’s lost her nose along the way and that Ryhault is somehow to blame, and yet no grudge is held; and, in fact, there’s a sense she has designs of him even against her own nature throughout the novel. And, yet, they’ve never been lover’s only ever partners in crime and war.
There’s Tnota, a scallywag navigator, an old man whose proclivities for younger men is the stuff of legends. A man who is simple, happy, and knows what he wants in life. He has been with Ryhault for years, too. As ugly as all get out with “mustard-yellow teeth stark in his treacle-dark face” and a “glass eye piece” the “colour of a week-old bruise”: “Dirty golds, hints of green, torn purples and ugly blood-browns merged together, an easel of ruptured fluids and broken capillaries.”
All through the novel Ryhault is haunted by an old lover he’s been forced to help by his dark Nameless overseer. On his arm is the tattoo of a crow the sign of his indenture to Crowfoot the Nameless. When Crowfoot needs him he will awaken from within this tattoo and break through Ryhault’s skin like a carrion warbird in full glory, all bloody and feather black. From the first time this happens in the novel Ryhault is called to save the aristocratic young woman Ezabeth Tanza. The first time he sees her it all comes back, his love, his youth, his loss:
Ezabeth fucking Tanza. Not a memory I’d wanted to dredge up again. Decades had crumbled away since I first sat across the table from her. I’d been trying to purge the memory ever since. Twenty years, a wife, children and years of stalking through the nightmare wasteland behind me and still her name could deliver an uppercut right to the balls. I had no doubt I had to escort her to Valengrad. If I’d thought Crowfoot had any kind of human emotion in him, I’d have thought it was some kind of sick fucking joke.
As you can see there’s a great deal of emotional baggage carried over from Ryhault’s past life concerning Ezabeth and their former relations. In the end it’s the good, bad, and ugly that drives the tale, and in the end we will discover a twist and surprise involving just how dark a tale it is.
We’ll meet many supporting actors in this story as well like Prince Herono who is the aunt of Ezabeth, and plays a mysterious role in her affairs. The Marshall of Valengard named Ventris who represents the Law and Order in the region. Otto Lindrick and Engineer who will introduce certain indefinable elements into the story as a friend and accomplish of Ezabeth. Like any fantasy there are the good, the bad, and the gray toned characters that one is left wondering about throughout the tale. It definitely keeps you guessing on which side do these various actors participate. The theme of betrayal is certainly central in shaping aspects of the plot, but that, too, is handled deftly and with a certain amount of intrigue throughout the book.
All in all I’d rate this first book a 4 out of 5 stars. There were moments when it almost tipped into too much sentimentality for my own tastes, but I can see why Ryhault was burdened with some of these elements which by the end of the novel make more sense. Otherwise I’d of loved to no more about Nenn and Tnota, some narrative sequences to give us more of their own personal backgrounds and history. But that would’ve been a sideline area which would’ve entailed a much larger and longer narrative. Maybe Ed will lengthen his tales in future series, go into more depth and detail. These characters because of the shortness of the novel were tending toward stereotypical forays rather than full-blown and richly extrapolated humans. I would’ve like to see McDonald shift POV to some of these other characters for variety and depth, and might have also given what is already a very heavy psychological novel with interior-monologues and thoughts from Ryhault a needed richness and power in an otherwise monotone work. But we can’t have everything we’d like… and, like I said I really enjoyed this work as is.
I hope you’ll read this great tale. I’m off to get the second in the series…