For readers reading fiction long enough, it becomes apparent that it’s not by default how original a book’s ideas are that make it successful, but how they are executed. The basics of writing—prose, structure, authorial voice, style, etc.—when done properly can transform the most mundane setting or premise into a solid, readable, even enjoyable book. Brandon Sanderson is full of original ideas, but his bloated stories and redundant prose turn what could be fun reads into slogs. Ed McDonald gets this. On the surface his 2017 Blackwing is not original. Post-apocalyptic wasteland populated with zombies and mutants. A nebulous dark force attacks a city of humans, soldiers and sorcerers fighting on both sides. A world weary but honorable mercenary captain drinks and fights his way to another day. It’s all been done before—and as of the state of publishing in 2018, many, many times over. Thing is, McDonald executes properly.
Ryhalt Galharrow (terrible name—harrowing, get it?) wants no part of his kingdom’s power structure, and instead chooses to spend his days collecting bounties on political subversives, earning coin for women and booze. His city of Valengrad powered by massive phosphorous engines, he is one of the few willing to go into the Misery—a vast nuclear-ish wasteland—to collect heads of those that would seek to destroy the engines and take the city down from the inside. Galharrow is a member of the Crowfeet, a mysterious group who answer to the beck and call of a nameless god, and after collecting a difficult set of bounties in the Misery one day he is called by his unseen master to a nearby city to meet a certain woman. The city attacked as he arrives, the trail of events that transpires finds Galharrow in debt to one of the kingdom’s most powerful sorcerers and in the midst of a war nobody knew was coming.
Yes, Blackwing is G.R.I.M.D.A.R.K. But as mentioned, McDonald does the little things right. The story contains just the right amount of detail to evoke the dark setting without beating the reader over the head with bleakness. (See Kameron Hurley’s God’s War for an example of how to treat the reader like a grimdark dead horse.) And it is genuine. Where writers like Joe Abercrombie revel in setting the reader up with a fantasy cliché only to “subvert” it in some indulgent, “grimdark” fashion, the elements of McDonald’s story feel inherent to his world. He doesn’t play such games. The storyline is occasionally predictable (in a mutant zone, so must be some mutants to fight around here somewhere…), it nevertheless generates momentum and escalates tension well. The middle-section perhaps attempts to juggle too many balls at once, but by the three-quarters point the narrative has its purpose and drives to a good, exciting, unpredictable conclusion. Like other novels which know they are working with familiar material yet try to make them as sincere as possible, McDonald even manages to install a layer (or two?) of humanity in Galharrow that goes beyond the standard noir detective or fantasy hero, in turn allowing the reader to invest a little more of themselves in the story.
Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages meets Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Blackwing thankfully borrows a bit more from Macleod’s more mature narrative sensibilities than Abecrombie’s relatively low assumptions of reader intelligence. There is the occasionally gratuitous grimdark simile and random excuse for violence (things are getting a little stale, best throw in a monster or sword fight…), nevertheless Mcdonald keeps the story’s reins taught and prose tight. To be clear, Blackwing is not the Dickensian, human-centric, steampunk novel The Light Ages is. Where Macleod’s world feeds the characters and theme, Mcdonald’s world feeds the story. Regardless, given the attention to craft, Blackwing makes for an enjoyable, entertaining read.