By Raven's Call by J A Devenport (The Blackwing Cycle #1)

Every time you fail, we shall tear off a piece of your soul until all that is left is us.
-Sychoral, Aengannai

The Raven is as much a rumour as a man, tall tales of daring and assassination that couldn’t possibly be true. They say he killed the last king, but nobody knows why. Actually, there’s a lot they don’t know. Who he is or where he might be. Or even if he’s real at all. In any case, he’s not the only one with a reputation. There’s Valora Silverface, masked and menacing, with a thousand silver rings hanging from her waist, each a prison for a powerful spirit; Badriyn, leader of the Uprising, always two steps ahead; Enias, sorcerer and scholar, rumoured to be building a weapon the likes of which the world has never seen. What kind of truths are there to be found around such legendary figures? And what happens when they are pitted against each other? Deyn, the Dargenn king, wants Enias dead, fearing his influence and power, and he’s prepared to use whatever tactics necessary to get it done, including the best assassin if he can find him. Because once the Raven is in on the board, there’s only one outcome: the death of the target. All the King must do is ensure he’s aimed at Enias and the man’s days will surely be numbered. Yet Enias may be the one man able to give the Raven the thing he wants most: a way out. The end might seem inevitable, but in this game, there’s everything to play for.

What’s immediately clear is the freshness and vibrancy of this world. Whatever else I felt during the read, it wasn’t overfamiliarity and while there were slower parts, it was never dull. In fact, it’s only the second book (after Symphony of the Wind by Steve McKinnon) that has ever made me enjoy airships. Probably because both authors meld magic and tech in innovative and pragmatic ways, creating extensive, multilayered worlds that are real enough to touch. The power is in the detail, the author’s creative energy crackling through every aspect of the novel, always there ahead of you answering questions you hadn’t thought to ask. Yet it’s never force-fed, flowing through the narrative in a way that adds to each scene rather than overwhelming it, and effectively assisted by the humour that runs through it all. This is a story with dark themes, but it doesn’t stop it being a fun read. 

Now that I think about it, there’s an interesting lightness to the story despite high action scenes of bloody violence, Lust-Hunters and sexual slavery, and really, really bad guys like Malice. Not because of any minimising of its inherent repugnance, more like a focused practicality that underlines the main POV. There are lots of issues in this place that need to be tackled, but they can’t all be rectified right now. It follows a pretty simple philosophy: first, sort this immediate thing and then we’ll deal with that.. but we’re never going to be able to fix everything, that’s just not possible. It’s so much a part of the narrative that I hadn’t really noticed until now but it adds a realism the ‘save the world’ ‘happily ever after’ plots never achieve. And it’s underscored by the characterisations. These people are flawed, with grudges or pain or various other obsessions/experiences/limitations that direct their thoughts and actions beyond what they can control. There’s a fascinating interplay between who they think they are, who they’re trying to be, and how others see them. It makes for great interactions between genuinely original characters, though there’s a good deal left to be explored in the future. It’s not just men either, I’d argue that the most interesting characters are female. Save the Raven. Maybe. 

Most impressive is the creation and depiction of the Spirit Dancers, humans with abilities powered by Aenmai spirits. How it all works isn’t as important as where it all comes from. There’s a real sense of history underlining this form of magic, the usual questions about the end of empires and peoples given a darker bent by the way its magical remnants are lending their aid to those in the present. But why? A question only partly answered here, leaving some intriguing avenues open for the next instalment. There are darker forces too, the brutal demands of Sychoral and her cohort, ostensibly ravens themselves but much more besides, driving the assassin to act against his will. A slave of a different type, though no less desperate to gain freedom. Yet people have other, more scientific means of enhancement, ‘augments’ in the form of pills/powders/potions used to improve various capabilities or senses. It reflects the other side of the book, the way the natural world is incorporated and utilised. From the everyday to the brutal wars fought over godmetals like aerite (used to power some airships), it’s all cleverly interconnected. And it’s just another proof that the author put in the time to think about how this whole system works, from government to economics, tech and magic, international relations and war, and rulers to the little people dealing with the daily grind. It’s comprehensive and completely believable, a place I could picture with ease, even with all the fantastical elements added in. And it never ceases to be surprising. The finale was explosive but still dared to be quiet, the power of one character’s sacrifice more affecting than any battle. If nothing before had convinced me of the need to continue, this final moment made sure of it. 

This is a story about the differences between what is and what is said, who people are and what others try to make them. Nothing is quite what it seems, both people and plots are labyrinthine, with secrets at their heart. It’s amusing and unexpected, a real treat of a story that I can’t wait to continue. It’s yet another example of a SPFBO book that has me jonesing hard for the follow-up, a quality read with an ending that sinks its hooks in deep. A real favourite from this year, it hasn’t yet received the kind of readership it deserves. Give it a go, it’s a worthy addition to your TBR.

ARC via SPFBO and Mihir at Fantasy Book Critic. 

9/10 It never ceases to be surprising... A quality read with an ending that sinks its hooks in deep.

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