A Literary Review of ‘Blackwing’ by Ed McDonald

Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own.

This book has a very strong Grimdark tone. The author did a wonderful job of giving this book a dark and gritty sensation, a making this book’s genre a combination of Fantasy, Dystopia, Noir Mystery and Weird Western. I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator did an A+ job. I got (‘Malazan: Deadhouse Gates’), (‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’) and (‘The Gunslinger’) vibes off of this one. Let’s get into this.


READER’S EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Reading this book, I was deeply invested into the setting, story and characters thanks to the author’s strong authorial voice. This was not a fun or happy book, but was a compelling one for it’s moody tone. The second half of the author’s book had my suspension of disbelief completely engaged. The first half was less engaging, but still readable. Overall, this book was captivating.

Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (B+)


CONCEPT AND EXECUTION

The book’s concept was twofold.

The first half of the book was a mystery story in the noir style in a Weird Western setting. The protagonist (an alcoholic detective/cowboy sheriff) has to go into the weird wilds to track down and kill criminals, solve crimes, mourn his Lost Lenore, and try to save a new love interest who’s the target of assassinations. The second half of the book is a desperate preparation and defense against the attacking eldritch enemy army, despite traitor and infiltrating spies.

I think this was a good concept, and it was well executed. The author played with the tropes of the Weird Western and Noir very well, to create a fantastical story. I especially loved the ending.

My biggest problem with this book’s execution was the author sometimes needed to show, not tell plot events more often.

Overall, I give the story’s Concept and Execution a rating of: (B)


CHARACTERS AND CHARACTERIZATION:

The protagonist Galharrow was a by-the-books alcoholic Noir detective hybridized with a Grimdark warrior protagonist. He is well written- but you have to be in the mood for the whole ‘alcoholic Noir detective’ schnitck. But if you are not in the mood for the ‘alcoholic Noir detective/sword guy’ thing, you might not enjoy this one as much. I liked his character growth, going from being a hardened warrior, to letting himself feel love again. I’ve read it before, but it was done well.

This is a 1st person novel, so the authorial voice of the novel had Galharrow’s gritty, pessimistic attitude- which is great! I enjoyed the protagonist and his retelling of this story.

Galharrow’s love interest Lezabeth (Elizabeth? Lizabet? I don’t know, I listened to the audiobook) needed a little bit more work. She was 66% of the way to being an excellent character, but she just needed a little bit more texture to make her amazing. As is, she was a bit too much of a Noir ‘sacrificial maiden/Lost Lenore’ cliche.

The side characters were fun, and some of them were real characters. None were boring or trite or cliche. The author embraced his sarcastic/ironic/grimdark voice and gave everyone attitude. But to quote Syndrome, “When everyone’s special, no one is.” Because so many characters embraced the grimdark attitude, it meant less when the protagonist embraced it. In short, I wanted a wider range of personalities from the side characters.

I will say I liked the creepy Frankenstien wizard. Very spooky.

Overall, I give the story’s Characterization a rating of: (C+)


PACING AND STRUCTURE

I’ll come right out and say it: I occasionally got bored in the first half of the book. Up until the point that the Crow first made his will known and started speaking with the protagonist, I was not too invested in the plot. After the protagonist got his assignment from the Crow the pacing gained a certain intensity, but even then it was not intense enough for me to call it fast paced. The book only became fast paced in the last 1/3 of the book.

‘Fast paced’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘well paced.’ However I think this book needed to have a faster paced beginning of the story.

I’m going to examine this book’s structure. I believe this book most closely follows the 5 act format.

  1. The Status Quo
    1. As I said above, the status quo is Galharrow’s miserable existence taking bounties in the wastes. It’s clear to the reader that Galharrow is looking to die out in the wastes, even if Galharrow doesn’t realize it himself.
    2. There’s a common literary technique where the author uses Act 1 as a microcosm story to portray the book as a whole. Why? To provide a reader with a bite-sized sample of what is to come, so they know if this book is for them. The author did not do that here, and I think he should have. Foreshadowing is nice.
  2. Challenge to the Status Quo
    1. In structures, acts begin and end when the protagonist makes a choice which cannot be unmade.
    2. The inciting incident which sets off act 2 is the Crow giving Galharrow his orders to protect Lizabeth. Galharrow accepting that assignment is the choice which causes the transition between act 1 and 2. He finds Lizabeth, realizes she’s crazy, but decides to help her anyway even though she’s crazy. That second decision is what ends the act.
  3. The Turning Point/ The Road of Trials
    1. This act contained a lot of ‘faffing around doing stuff.’ The protagonist fought monsters, spoke with corrupt politicians, interviewed engineers, all with the goal of helping Lizabeth.
    2. This act is called ‘The Road of Trials’ for a reason. This act can contain a lot of different problems which need to be solved, the solving of which propels the story towards it’s conclusion.
    3. In the middle of this act is the Midpoint Climax. In this book, the Midpoint Climax was a great big fight scene, where the protagonist and his love interest fight monsters. I liked this fight, because it mirrored the final battle in several important ways.
  4. Escalation of the Challenge
    1. Lizabeth is taken captive, and Galharrow has to spring her from jail/the mental institution.
    2. The purpose of this act from a formula perspective is to set the pieces in motion for the conclusion. In the process of freeing Lizabeth, we get valuable information about who the traitor is, learn more about the monster’s endgame plan, and gain a shred of hope of defeating the enemy army.
  5. Climax and Conclusion
    1. A big fight scene.
    2. The denouement was a bit of a letdown for me.

What to make of this book’s structure? It was a bit messy, at least compared to the ‘ideal’ of the 5 act structure. And that’s okay! The rules of structure are more like guidelines. But I must confess that I think that Acts 3 and 4 were a little bloated. This book had a lot of ‘plot points for the sake of plot points.’ I felt like a good number of the events in the story could have been trimmed out to make a leaner whole.

So structure and pacing wise, I think the author did a passing job of things. Like an old jalopy which will get you there in the end, the structure and pacing of this story weren’t it’s finest features but nonetheless didn’t buckle under the strain either.

Overall, I give the story’s Pacing and Structure: (C)


PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION

This book’s plot was way too complex, involving too much wandering around. The whole ‘defend a city which is too corrupt to be defended’ thing was well done, but at times the plot felt listless. (But this complaint is very much a personal taste sort of thing.) I enjoyed the book’s well-realized gritty atmosphere, and that carried the plot for me.

The book’s stakes were well integrated into the storytelling. They were high stakes (fate of a city/fate of a continent), but also personal stakes (the protagonist lives in the city/the life of his hopeful girlfriend is on the line). I found the stakes compelling.

The book’s tension was good. From the moment the main plot was introduced (the protagonist being sent to bodyguard his old flame), you could feel that the narrative was under strain and constantly under pressure. The protagonist’s goal was to help her and protect her, and the enemy’s goal was to capture or kill her. These simple goals are a sign of good tension.

Overall, I give the story’s Plot: (B-)


EVERYTHING ELSE (SETTING, WORLDBUILDING, TONE, PROSE AND THEME)

For me, the setting and worldbuilding were the best parts of this story. I liked the doomed world this story portrayed, clearly on it’s last legs after an apocalyptic war between two immense wizarding powers. Human civilization is used as pawns by both sides. While it’s clear that the enemies were REALLY bad folks, it was also clear that the friendly wizards were frenemies at best.

I don’t often say this, but I liked the magic system as described in this book. The characters can weave moonlight and store it in batteries to perform their spells. In this story, we see magic mainly used as a combat tool. This light-based magic is opposed to the enemy’s gross biological magic, which sinks worms into your brain and mutates your body into serving them. I especially liked how the monsters had innocuous names like ‘Darlings.’ It made them all the more menacing.

This book is a masterclass on tone storytelling. The authorial voice was gargling whiskey and smoking a pack a day for the last twenty years. Read only a few pages of this story and you get the feeling that ‘this world is ruined and no one’s happy.’ The story is told from the first person perspective, so the ‘ruination’ the tone comes across does double duty of characterizing the protagonist.

Was the tone subtle? No. But the author wasn’t trying for subtle. The author clearly wanted to drown the reader in the despair of the world. He succeed. As this is a debut, I was impressed.

The prose was good. At moments it was quite elegant and beautiful. At other moments it was gross and gritty. I liked this dialectic of quality- the grime made the beauty work all the more. However I could tell this was a debut novel. Sometimes the angsty prose was too tryhard, and occasionally the pretty prose was purple. The author’s voice was very enjoyable, but needed some refinement.

I don’t think the author wrote this book with a theme in mind. The closest thing to a theme I can pick out of this one is ‘losing what you love,’ but that’s more of a genre motif for Grimdark so I don’t think that counts. The very ending of the book had a theme of ‘sacrifice what you love in order to win’ theme, but that theme wasn’t really carried on throughout the rest of the book.

I don’t demand authors write their books with blunt moralizing in mind (quite the opposite, really). However a solid theme can really join together all the plot arcs in a holistic and memorable fashion. If you’ve read the Grimdark book ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, part of the reason why that book is so good is because it has the themes of ‘toxic relationships’ integrated into every aspect of the plot and characters. The theme drives home the fact that if those people got some therapy that world’s problems needn’t always escalate to outright war. As ‘Blackwing’ is a debut novel, I’m willing to forgive the author.

I give Everything Else: (B+)


AUDIOBOOK NOTES

The audiobook version of this was excellent. The narrator and the authorial voice were well matched together, with one complementing the other. My final grade of this book will be improved based upon the high quality of the narration.

I give the Audiobook: (A+)


Lessons Learned

I’m an aspiring author, and I believe that I should learn new things from every book I read. Here are some lessons I learned from this book, and I’ll try to incorporate into my own works.

  • Don’t be afraid to let your tone shine through the authorial voice. Establish your tone/authorial voice, and triple down on it. It made the book memorable, and that’s good.
  • I liked the worldbuilding, specifically the terrifying mundanity of some of the monsters. The concept of the Darlings was super creepy.
  • I liked the balance of the prose, where the author was willing to be both grim and beautiful. The grimness made the beauty seem all the more beautiful, and the beauty made the grimness seem more real.

SUMMARY

This book is good. For me at least, this book never rose to the level of absolute excellence. However the author clearly had a vision for what he wanted to write and he did an admirable job of achieving that goal. Were there flaws? Yes. It was a bit rough around the edges prose-wise, and the pacing got a bit listless in the beginning and the middle. However those problems were small, and I was nonetheless impressed that this was the author’s debut. McDonald’s got chops.

Should you read it? If my review sounds interesting, then yes. I’m not a huge fan of Grimdark, but this story does a good job of melding Weird West with Grimdark with Noir. If that sounds up your alley, check this out.

I listened to the audiobook, and can attest that the narrator Colin Mace knocked this one out of the park.


STARS: 3.3 OUT OF 5 STARS (5 Stars=Perfect, 4 Stars=Great, 3 Stars=Good, 2 Stars=Fun but Flawed, 1 Star=Not Recommended)

JUDGEMENT: Very solid debut.

Overall Rating: Recommended


Goodreads

Genres/Tagwords: Weird West, Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Noir, Mystery, Grimdark

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:


Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more:

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Dragon Republic’ by R. F. Kuang, Book 2 in the Poppy War series

A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series

A Literary Analysis of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion

A Literary Discussion of ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter

A Literary Critique of ‘Battle Ground’ by Jim Butcher, Book 17 of ‘The Dresden Files’ series

A Review of ‘Blue Moon Rising’ by Simon Green

A Review of ‘Light of The Jedi’ by Charles Soule

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