I'm starting to feel like a broken record, but given the amount of derivative bilge published today, the message bears repeating: stereotypes are ok; it's how you execute. Epic fantasy is a dead, beaten horse—but it's still possible to write effectively in the medium and create engaging, enjoyable stories. Enter Ed McDonald's Raven's Mark series. Nothing new here; it's pieces can all be found in multiple peers and ancestors. But McDonald delivers everything with color and edge, and evolves the pieces in a plot that simultaneously builds and surprises. But could McDonald maintain the success for the trilogy's conclusion, Crowfall (2019)? Let's find out.
Like Ravencry, Crowfall opens multiple years after the events of the prior novel. Ryhalt has gone off the grid, eking out an existence in the Misery. The blackness of the Misery seeping into his very soul, Ryhalt is cursed with magical powers he'd rather not have. But when a summons from his master arrives on his “doorstep”, Ryhalt must return to civilization to answer the call, and in doing so, encounters pieces of his old life he'd rather not. Society appearing on the verge of collapse under the weight of the Deep Kings, once again Ryhalt must bridge the gap. But is everything as it seems?
One of the things I loved about first two books is how the story evolved in organic fashion, an organic fashion that managed to deliver surprises that felt logical. There were double twists and things that suddenly appeared that didn’t feel as McDonald had uprooted the underlying fabric of his story to make it happen. The size of the story expanded gracefully and the pieces which took on new meaning did so without crashing belief. In Crowfall, this does not evolve as strongly. There are a couple of moments that grab the reader—and to McDonaldd's credit the biggest is the ending. But overall, the plot's vivacity and strength, wane. And the reason is clear.
Having blown it’s load in the first two books, McDonald is left scraping the bottom of the barrel for plot motivation in Crowfall. Practically the entire middle of the book—what is normally the burger, salad, and ketchup—is tofu. (I like tofu, but you get the analogy.) Meandering here and there with minor characters dredged up from the first two novels, nothing really happens. Given there are essentially two major milestones of story, the intro and climax, the novel has troubles with momentum.
To be clear, however, Crowfall is not mailed in. McDonald clearly put time and effort into it. Other than the ending, it still lacks the spark that set the previous two books apart from the teeming herd of epic fantasy novels on the market today. At times just going through the motions, it feels more generic than novel a good chunk of the time. Were the reader to pick up Crowfall first, I’m not certain they’d feel the qualities that made the first two special. Rather than building on the momentum of the first two into what in theory should be the most grandiose, epic volume in a trilogy. We get the slowest, least substantial. Save that ending...
The ending where Crowfall earns its pay, it was wonderful to see (no spoilers here) McDonald choosing to keep things personal. It renders Blackwing the most epic of the series to date, but does draw the reader into Ryhalt's plight, which is to say the human side of his supernatural situation. Crowfall tries to be the most personal of the trilogy, and largely succeeds.
My biggest complaint is a character who. just. won't. die. How many times can they be killed and still come back to life? How long before the Raven's Mark trilogy starts to imitate the Little Boy who Cried Wolf? When said character finally does “die”, it's entirely unconvincing and unsatisfying. We keep waiting for him to poke his head through the credits as they roll.
Crowfall a olid but not spectacular end to the trilogy. McDonald spent a lot of his bullets in the first two and didn’t leave himself a healthy clip for the finale. Only scraps to work with, the book has serious trouble building interest and momentum. The climax is very rousing, even touching, but only rivals but not outmatches the finales of the previous novels. The clash people are expecting does not happen. What does happen is personal and powerful, and fits the novel, but perhaps not the trilogy, which is something that will likely divide readers.