Mild Spoilers below for ‘Crowfall’ and major spoilers for ‘Blackwing’ and ‘Ravencry’.
If you were to ask me books I was exited about in 2019, ‘Crowfall’ was easily one of my top three. I was super excited about this book, as ‘Blackwing’ was one of my favourite fantasy debuts I’d ever read, and ‘Ravencry’ soared (there will be a few bird puns in this review, apologies in advance) above my every expectation. So there was a lot riding on ‘Crowfall’.
I was lucky enough to get an early copy through Gollancz, so huge thank you to them for that, but I didn’t dive into it straight away. I found myself unwilling to start this book because I was worried it wouldn’t live up to the previous two instalments. They had ruled the skies, and I was worried that Galharrow’s third outing wouldn’t quite stick the landing.
I’ll tell you right now that it does.
Oh, holy sweet fucking hell, it does.
I have gone through this cycle with all three of McDonald’s books. I start them, and it usually takes me a good while longer to get into them than usual. I thought this was because I wasn’t enjoying it when I read ‘Blackwing’. I thought it was because I wasn’t in the mood when I read ‘Ravencry’. But with ‘Crowfall’ I’ve realised that it’s just because McDonald’s world is just so wonderfully weird, and this one is by far the weirdest.
Note: That is NOT a bad thing. ‘Crowfall’ is all the better for accepting it’s weirdness. Where the first two books present Galharrow as an outsider, an ‘experiencer’ (is that a word? It is now) of said weirdness. In ‘Crowfall’, Galharrow is the weirdness. He has spent six years in the very heart of the Misery, the tainted land seeping into his bones and veins. He speaks to it, lets it guide him, empower him, and sustain him. He also sees ghosts that often come a little too close to being corporeal for his own liking. I was really really glad to see Nenn make a return as a ghost, she was my favourite character in ‘Blackwing’ and ‘Ravencry’, and it broke my little heart when she died in Book Two. So, McDonald, big love for bringing Nenn back, you knew what your readers wanted!
While we’re on the topic of Nenn, let’s talk about some of the other secondary characters. Everyone comes back for this final trip into the world of the Misery, and Nenn isn’t the only dead face to make a re-appearance. I won’t ruin it, but no one seems to stay dead when the Nameless and the Deep Kings are involved. Dantry Tanza, Gleck Maldon, Tnota, Amaira, and the ever lovely Valiya all pop back up as well, nobody is left out. It brought a smile to my face every time a character from the previous instalments popped up, especially Gleck. I really forgot how much I love that little bastard. McDonald writes all these characters with ease, and they all feel distinct and well fleshed out. Fuck, even Acradius, the books main antagonist, has an individual voice for the few times we actually hear the Deep King speak.
One of my big criticisms with this book, however, is the new characters that it introduces. With the exception of a mysterious man named North, none of the new side characters really have much unique about them. Silpur, a new Blackwing Captain, was very interesting, but his apparance was all too brief for my liking. (Ed, please give us a short story with this dude in it, because he was cool as shit!) I suppose they are very minimal, supporting roles, but I would also have liked the Spinner Kanalina to have a bit more behind her, and General Kazna was pretty forgettable on the whole, while it seemed like she could have been more pivotal in the final act.
However, this is a very minimal complaint. Where McDonald really shines as a writer here is with Galharrow himself.
I work for a bookshop, and we like to put review cards with our face-out books. I wrote our one for ‘Ravencry’ and simply put;
“A more apt title for this book: ‘Ryhalt Galharrow’s No-Good-Terrible-Very-Bad-Life.'”Me, trying to be funny in my shop
Now, if you’d read ‘Ravencry’ and thought Galharrow had seen the worse the Misery had to offer, then you are well and truly mistaken my friend. McDonald puts Galharrow through literal fucking hell in this book. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, Galharrow is torn apart in ‘Crowfall’ and rebuilt from the ground up, and McDonald leads us through his protagonist’s personal Misery with some beautifully written prose that is well crafted, while still remaining blunt and to the point.
The story itself follows along as Galharrow and his rogues gallery of compatriots struggle to complete their own plans, while the pathologically insane Nameless Crowfoot needs them to create another world ending weapon to combat the every approaching and increasingly more deadly Deep King Acradius. And boy, once this story gets going, it doesn’t stop. And if you thought that McDonald had exerted all his weirdly creative juices in the first two books, which you would be forgiven for thinking, the author proves you wrong swifter than you can say ‘Dulchers and skweams’. So much weirder shit goes down in this book, between marble monstrosities that tear men limb from limb and the three headed, forty legged, winged bat creature that emits choking black smoke from its arse like a broken fighter jet. McDonald is still on top form with the macabre beasts of the Misery.
Now, it might sound like I’m telling you this is a very grim book. And it is. Fuck sake, it is. It’s a story of violence. It’s a story of a bleak world where everything wants to kill you or corrupt you. It’s the story of a man pushed to the point of utter self-destruction.
But lots of books do that now-a-days. There are exhaustive lists of great ‘Grimdark’ fantasy books. But you know what I think sets Ed McDonald’s work apart from all of those books?
He writes stories about people who stand against the bleak world around them:
‘Bring your vassal Kings. Bring your Drudge. Bring everything you fucking have, your whole damn Empire if you need it. Bring it all. We’ll be waiting for you.’
He writes stories about people with incredible strength and determination:
‘Do you hear me? Spirits or Gods or whatever rules this world? Do you hear me? I’m taking her back.’
He writes stories about people with the incredible capacity for love:
‘The love that a person holds for another. It’s what we live for, what we fight for, and when fate calls to us, what we’re prepared to die for.’
And above all, he writes stories about hope:
‘They were up against swords and walls and powder and magic, and above them all, hope.
And that’s why I recommend McDonald’s work. Because he writes the stuff that people need to read in times like this. He packages himself up like another Grimdark author, while under it all he’s a man out there preaching a message of love and hope, and the danger that both can cause to their enemies.
I cannot wait to see what McDonald does next, but I know that if he keeps along this path then we’ll be in for a treat.
For the record:
Blackwing: 8/10 ‘One of the best damn debuts I’ve ever read, and one of favourite books of 2017’
‘Ravencry’: 9/10 ‘A spectacular follow-up, and a brilliant book in it’s own right. Near perfect.’
So Crowfall comes in at 10/10. I couldn’t have asked for a better conclusion of Galharrow’s story.
(And like a total fool, when I first wrote this review, I completely forgot to put in my Spotify playlist for this book! So here it is: