Blackwing by Ed McDonald – A Review


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Blackwing by Ed McDonald – A Review


The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard’s paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.

The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall’s ‘Engine’, a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery – a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Man’s Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic’s defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic’s bluff.


A highly accomplished example of world-building, in a rich literary environment, with a lot of thought-provoking potential. Ed McDonald’s effective prose, good pace and believable characters drew me right into his intriguing, very different, and fascinating world. A world peopled with horrifying but fascinating monsters and twisted landscapes.

A gritty story full of gritty, desperate, humorous, nasty characters in a desperate, nasty world of varied land and city scapes, all drawn together into a well-rounded narrative. It has characters that feel familiar, but only because they are human with all the baggage that entails, and therefore likeable despite – or perhaps ‘because’ – of all their flaws. The feel of the story is that of a Wild West tale – a borderlands flavour that I love. Shocks and traps lie along the narrative route, episodes of rapid action, scenes of reflection, all are finely balanced to keep the reader on a blade’s edge of uncertainty.

Decades before the story begins, The Nameless (almost immortal and powerful sorcerers) and the Deep Kings (godlike and demonic) warred over the world. The Nameless unleashed an unimaginably destructive weapon: Nall’s Engine, which destroyed cities, towns, villages, and millions of innocent people. It also created a huge expanse of land where the laws of nature were twisted beyond belief, a place known as The Misery – a poisonous wasteland full of dark magics, teeming with ghosts, and inhabited by strange and deadly creatures formed from the humans, animals, and plants that somehow survived the devastation, such as the creepy mind-controlling darlings, and the revolting yet seductive brides. Enough time spent under the bruised and ripped sky above The Misery can give a traveller a terrible case of the shakes.

The ‘bomb’ succeeded in ending the war, but it is a fragile stalemate and the surviving peoples live under the threat of the Deep Kings returning one day should Nall’s Engine ever fail.

The story is told in the first person through the main protagonist, Captain Galharrow, which brings the reader right into his world, his mind even, though I’ll leave others to discover if he’s a reliable narrator or not. Galharrow leads a team of mercenaries, bounty hunters of those that side with the Deep Kings, a job that introduces the reader to The Misery and some of its twisted denizens. He is also in service to one of The Nameless who communicates with Galharrow through a raven that rips its way out of a tattoo on the man’s arm. An alarming and gruesome form of messaging. The bird burns to ash as soon as the sorcerer’s orders are delivered and the tattoo is all healed soon after. Galharrow is a cynical veteran of war unafraid to do what’s necessary to survive, but also loyal to his closest friends and team members Tnota, the team’s navigator, and Nenn, a fierce fighter (both of whom are also strong, well-drawn characters). The memories that plague Galharrow allowed me to understand his personal history, and helped deepen and broaden the broken world he lives in. He is a conflicted character living on the edge of despair who medicates with alcohol.

The magic-system of this world is interesting, new, something I’ve not come across before. Spinners and talents are people able to draw the energy from the light of the three moons. This energy is used to power the city, rather like electricity, it is also used for weapons, including Nall’s Engine. An old flame of Galharrow’s is a Spinner, but one with extraordinary power, who he must protect by his master’s orders.

Blackwing was a thoroughly engrossing read, which I found hard to put down. I’m looking forward to book two and I recommend everyone who loves a bit of grit in their fantasy to get on and read this.


All the best

R B Watkinson


Faithless by Graham Austin-King – A Review

Faithless by [Austin-King, Graham]


The temples of the Forgefather have fallen. The clerics and defenders that could once be found across the nine lands are no more. Priests huddle in the great temple, clinging to the echoes of their lost religion. But the Father has fallen silent. There are none who still hear his voice.

The mines of Aspiration lie far below the temple’s marble halls. Slaves toil in the blackness, striving to earn their way into the church and the light. Wynn has been sold into this fate, traded for a handful of silver. In the depths of the mines, where none dare carry a flame, he must meet his tally or die. But there are things that lurk in that darkness, and still darker things within the hearts of men.

When the souls bound to the great forge are released in a failed ritual, one novice flees down into the darkness of the mines. The soul-wraiths know only hunger, the risen know only hate. In the blackest depths, Kharios must seek a light to combat the darkness which descends. 


There are two main characters whose stories are followed in Faithless. Wynn is full of anger, sadness, and loneliness. We meet him as a young boy of fifteen, newly sold to the Temple of the Forgefather by his own father. Expecting to go into training for the priesthood, he is instead sent to the mines of Aspiration that lie beneath the Temple.

“You’re an aspirant. There’s nothing below you because you’re as low as things get.”

Crushed by darkness, disinterest, and danger, Wynn struggles to survive in any meaningful way. He leaves, as soon as he receives the opportunity, and enters the Church to begin his training as a priest.

The second main character, is Kharios, a novice of the Temple, who is learning the art of smith-work, which is an integral part of his training to become a priest of the Forgefather.

The Forgefather is the god of fire and creation. However, his voice hasn’t been heard by the priests for hundreds of years and over those years their power and their temples have fallen. There is but a single Temple left. Though the priests still go through the rituals, they have lost their belief in their god, and most are now ‘Faithless’.

The story unfolds slowly but it held my attention nonetheless as Austin-King’s world building is solid. He has created a reality for his characters with both depth and breadth and a great deal of history. There are few mentions of the world beyond the mines and the Temple, but within them there is as much detail as any reader could want about mining, forging and smithing. It is obvious he has researched exhaustively into all the aspects of these industries for this book.

This tale is focused on the immediate, intense, and claustrophobic mines of Aspiration and the equally claustrophobic halls of the Temple. In the former, the threat of brutality hovers over every inmate, with no redress and no protection. Friendship is rare, loyalty is rarer still. Missed mining quotas in coal and metal result in whippings, infractions against the overseer lead to hangings, the overseer’s word is law and his law is cruel. In the latter, the novices are vulnerable to the vagaries of the priests under whom they study. Kharios and Wynn fall under the tutelage of a certain Ossan, a master metalsmith, who is also a sexual abuser. Though these episodes are not graphic, enough is touched upon to make them a difficult read.

As the story unfolded, the pace hastened, and moments of action and danger intensified. I began to smell the coal dust, the forge fires, the molten metals. I could see the colours of the flames, the heated iron and copper, the utter dark. I could feel the focus of the characters, their fear, and their anger.

There is great twist around three quarters of the way through the book, which I loved as it surprised me. There is a certain amount of resolution at the end of this book, horrible though it turned out to be, however, there is one huge narrative thread that is left dangling, which will no doubt be picked up on in the next book of this trilogy.

There are wonderful grim and gritty themes to this book, along with a flavouring of ancient mythology – I am reminded of Girra the Sumerian god of fire – any lover of the darker side of fantasy should enjoy reading Faithless as much as I did.


All the best

R B Watkinson

Swords of Good Men – A Review

Swords of Good Men

The Swords of Good Men

“For Ulfar Thormodsson, the Viking town of Stenvik is the last stop on a two-year-long journey before he goes home.

But for other, larger powers, Stenvik is about to become the meeting ground in a great war: one that will see a clash of the old gods versus the new White Christ. One that will see blood wash the land.

As Ulfar becomes ever-more involved in the politics of the town, and prepares to meet these armies in a battle for Stenvik’s freedom, he Is about to learn that not all his enemies stand outside the walls.”

This is a rollicking yarn about Vikings and their mythology. An historical tale where the battle scenes are fierce, frenzied, frightful (love a bit of alliteration, me) with often unforeseen outcomes. If you like heroic fantasy set in Earth’s Nordic past, then this book is for you.

The story begins with two young sons of Jarls from somewhere in Scandinavia – the above mentioned Ulfar, a womaniser, and his less worldly cousin, Geiri – who are travelling together to Stenvik, a coastal town to create trade connections.

I’d just like to mention that Kristjansson’s set building is excellent, as I ‘saw’ Stenvik as well as I did Hedeby in the series Vikings. It is filled with characters who have secrets, dark pasts, complicated relationships, i.e., fully rounded and believable. I quickly came to know and care about the inhabitants, visitors, and prospective attackers of, Stenvik. Audun – a blacksmith of heroic strength. Harald, Stenvik’s first warrior – an astounding fighter and brutal wife-beater. Valgard – a healer with one hell of a secret agenda.

There is one true Viking historical figure, Olav Tryggvason, King of Norway, who converted his people to the Christian faith, whether they wanted to or not. This king is marching toward Stenvik, forcibly converting villages and towns to the ‘faith’ and taking a tithe of fighting men from each.

I mentioned the prospective attackers of Stenvik. These are the notorious and dreaded Viking raider leaders and their crews, coming together under one man Skargrim, who ends up leading a vast army – for the times – of around a thousand men and women. The driving force behind this army is Skuld, a völva (Scandinavian witch), fighting for her Norse gods against the Christian incursion and from her come the elements of magic which place the book firmly into the fantasy genre.

“‘Come to me.’ The voice was a whisper, a breeze on a freezing winter’s night, drifting in from the stern. A woman followed the voice, and walked to the mast. The big man walked to her and suddenly everything was quiet around them. ‘Here,’ she whispered. ‘Take this.’ She handed him a length of wood.

As he took it, she touched his bearded cheek and smiled. ‘Burn them. Burn them as they want to burn us.’

The spar of wood burst into green and white flames, revealing three vicious scars on the big man’s neck.

Screams and cries for help pierced the stillness. He jumped over the side of the ship and ran towards the house with the cross.”

The pace speeds as the story progresses and culminates in a huge bloody, gore and death-filled, almost endless battle. With many inventive and exciting ways of attacking and defending the town explored.

With all these narrative threads and fast, short, point-of-view change chapters, the book is complex, yet it remains a very good read. Plenty of drama, tension, plot twists, and a surprise ending, which will have you in a fever of anticipation for the next book.

It covers the conflict of faiths, which happened to the Vikings on epic scale under King Olav, and for a lot people giving up the Norse Gods meant an end to the world they knew, one they had all lived in for centuries. So, if you like historical fiction with a healthy touch of magic, great bloody battles, and larger than life characters, then read this book.

As an addendum, I would have liked to have more of the story taken up by the female characters. There were only little snippets from Lilia, Harald’s wife, and Skuld. Personally, I’d love a chapter from Thora’s perspective. She’s one of Skargrim’s notorious raider leaders. What a woman:

“‘ROW, ROW, ROW, YOU STINKING, SNIVELLING, SHIT BABIES! ROW! COME ON!’ Thora screamed at the men, who smiled through gritted teeth.”

I’m looking forward to reading book two of The Valhalla Saga.

All the best to you all

R B Watkinson

That Final, Final, Final Draft

I have finished – yet again – my final, final, final draft of The Fractured Portal. It’s bloody, war-filled, death-laden, and the ending is heart-breaking – just to make you need to read book 3: The Ruptured Weaves. The joy of finishing lasted all of half an hour, then I began fretting about whether my editor would be pleased or at least satisfied with it. She’s got to LOVE it – that’s what I’m hoping for anyway 😍 



Castle under attack

As I read through the draft that last time, I kept in mind all the essential ingredients for an enjoyable and enthralling read.

Do I have enough conflict to sustain the length and complexity of the book? It’s almost nothing but conflict, from small problems to the total destruction of castles and armies.

Are my characters properly developed? Do they grow consistently throughout the book? There’s so much change happening in their world and to them, they have to grow to survive.

Is the pacing correct? It’s a lot faster than book one, but there are moments where the readers can catch their breath.

Does the middle sag anywhere? The middle is a battle lasting days – no saggyness (is that even a word?)

Does the story unfold naturally with consistency and tension? Stuff happens, more stuff happens, followed by more stuff happening (don’t you love the exact science of writing?). The story ebbs and flows, speeds and slows. Like life, really.

Are my characters likable, with strong goals and sufficient motivation? Hell, yes. Even though I wrote this ‘stuff’,  I cried when Alan lost…oops (whoah, nearly had a spoiler alert there!) And then when Evie reached out to…yikes (that was another close call!)

I can, however, give you the first paragraph. Remember Coryn from The Cracked Amulet? The ex-farmboy, ex-slave who tried to save the day with the help of an ifrit he freed, even though he kicked against doing the right thing until he did? Well here he is at the beginning of The Fractured Portal:

“Tensed and wary for danger to come at them from some other quarter, Coryn watched for the Murecken to enter the valley below. His shoulders hunched against the chill downdraft from the mountains, he scanned the scrawny pines rooted in the thin soil of the ridge, looking for anything that didn’t fit. A tree-spirit emerged through the bark of a nearby sapling, crept along a branch and hung onto its tip. Coryn followed its line of sight and spotted a tiny water-spirit splashing in a pool of rainwater.”

He’s lying in wait for those damned blood-priests – I will say no more.

All the best to you all

R B Watkinson

The Shadow of What was Lost – A Review

The Shadow of What was Lost by James IslingtonThe Shadow of What Was Lost: Book One of the Licanius Trilogy by [Islington, James]

“As destiny calls, a journey begins…

It has been twenty years since the godlike Augurs were overthrown and killed. Now, those who once served them – the Gifted – are spared only because they have accepted the rebellion’s Four Tenets, vastly limiting their own powers.

As a gifted, Davian suffers the consequences of a war lost before he was even born. He and others like him are despised. But when Davian discover he wields the forbidden power of the Augurs, he sets into motion a chain of events that will change everything.

To the west, a young man whose fate is intertwined with Davian’s, wakes up in the forest covered in blood and with no memory of who he is…

And in the far north, an ancient enemy long thought defeated begins to stir.”

This is an epic fantasy written with a masterful panache with a flavour of Robert Jordan about it. It has a vast history, a broad geography, and a great map – always a plus as far as I am concerned. The prologue is a taster of  some of the history, one which certainly intrigued me.

The Augurs were fabulously powerful and were served by those with lesser powers of a different nature known as the Gifted. Long before this story begins, the Augurs were overthrown and annihilated by a rebellion of the non-gifted, and the surviving Gifted were forced into living with their powers very much curtailed. All the Gifted are marked with a naturally occurring brand when that Gift first manifests within them. These youngsters are then sent to learn how to use their Gift at various colleges around the land of Andarra. Now, a new army rises from the north, strange people with stranger powers proliferate.

This is a multi-POV story, essentially following three protagonists Davian, Wirr and Asha, but many other characters fill the narrative with interest and colour. The three youngsters attend a college where they learn how to use their magical powers, within the constraints of the Tenets. Unfortunately, apart from his brand indicating the Gift must have manifested, Davian cannot seem to access it.  A stranger sends him off on an errand to discover why the Boundary – a magical construct lying between the lands of Talan Gol and the south, which holds back the remains of the Augurs’ ancient powers in the form of monsters and followers – is failing and how to mend it. He is accompanied by his friend Wirr. Asha loses everything, we journey with her to a new life where she must learn a new way of being. The fourth main player, who wakes with no knowledge of who he is, though named him Caeden by villagers in the place where he woke, joins Wirr and Davian on their journey to the Boundary. Caeden must discover who he is and what the link between him and an artifact that Daeven carries is. He is beset by many visions of a past, but not a past that he can remember. In one he is told:

“We each have our temptations, Tal’kamar. We each have our own battles that must be fought. But you must fight them, my friend. You cannot hide from them. Otherwise you will never be more than you are.”

And Caeden knows he needs to be very much more than he is now to survive, let alone succeed in doing what he must – even though he has no idea what that might be.

I like that this world is one where magic and its bearers are detested and controlled by those with none – that the all-powerful ones were overthrown long ago. I like that there are different types of magic, there’s a nice section explaining how the two types are different and how they work – how it is the Essence that powers the Gift – yet it is not in the traditional college/school setting that this is learned. The characters are believable and strong, many characters are not what they seem, some have powers that could get them killed, some situations are not what they as straightforward as the reader might suspect, there are lots of twists, red-herrings, shadowy flashbacks and fore-shadowings – and I love them all.

I am very much looking forward to reading the second book in the Licanius trilogy.

All the best

R B Watkinson

The Emperor’s Blades – A Review

I was not given this book, I bought it with my own hard-earned money, I would do so again. The Emperor’s Blades was a good solid read.

The Emperor's Blades

“The circle is closing, the stakes are high, and old truths will live again.”

A classic epic fantasy with a twist, this is an exciting, fast-paced and immersive read. If the story continues on this level, this is going to be an excellent series and I cannot wait to get my sweaty hands on book two.

This story follows three siblings, two boys and a girl, the children of an Emperor. On the Emperor’s murder, these three must find out who is behind the murder and survive attacks on their own lives.

Brian Staveley has created a vivid story filled with action, treachery, and conspiracy, based in a complex world filled with religions, mythology, and history. In those histories are tales of ancient powers scoffed at by most but believed in by a few.

It begins with a prologue providing a window onto an ancient time, long before the events in the main narrative begin, and where the protagonist’s point of view proves to be quite alien.

“’When you know nothing about a creature,’ the monk ground out, his voice hard as a rockslide, ‘expect it has come to kill you.’”

Then we are thrown into Kaden’s POV, the eldest of the siblings and heir to the Empire. He lives a severe life in a monastery until the outside world barges in on the death of his father. He is frustrated by his lack of learning, and wonders why he is there at all, so far from the court and all he feels he should be learning about the Empire. He is mentored by the harshest of all the monks, who seems intent to make him learn something or die trying. As a reader I was becoming as frustrated as Kaden in trying to figure out what it was the monks truly wanted of him.

Next, we meet Valyn, the middle child. He trains at a college for assassins. An odd choice for a prince, but by now we realise these youngsters have no choices of their own in this world. Valyn is good, but not the best, loyal but impetuous. He quickly discovers he’s next on the hit list and tries to discover who is out to kill him at the same time as train for his ‘finals’. An even which could easily lead to his death.

Lastly, we meet Adare, the daughter, a princess and the Minister of Finance. With the poisonous environment of the court and the religious orders of Annur all about her, she walks a fine line between what she wishes to do and what she may do. She is clever but anger makes her react in uncontrolled bursts when she must be very controlled to survive. I’m hoping Brian develops the character of Adare more as she is only touched upon throughout the book. Having said that, her last chapter is very promising indeed, and its twist is something to relish.

All the best

R B Watkinson

Writing The Fractured Portal

Castle under attack

That’s a five thousand odd word battle done for Book Two of The Wefan Weaves Trilogy. My brain is officially knackered.

Alan – flung from London through portals and hyperspace into the world of Dumnon – lives through a siege that lasts three days. He now holds a crossbow and adds to the arrows and quarrels that sheet down from the parapets, dodges catapult thrown balls of fire that spatter the walls with green flames, cheers as forays of Manomish heavy and light cavalry charge from the castle to attack the Murecken besiegers. Ladders are raised and gates broken, mindless blodgemen boil up to the castle and die in their hundreds, monsters known as tadige and writhen kill and kill and eat the dead and dying. Blood and gore steam in the ice-laden air, bodies and their parts litter the frost-crusted ground, the stink of death clogs his nostrils and poisons his food. Ash and snow fall from the skies and everything is black and grey and red and hell.

On the final day,  a vast creature that looks very like a prehistoric crocodile known as an orswyrm, is ridden by Reven – a Mid-priest of the Great God Murak – right up to the gates above which Alan stands. The priest’s blood-magik swallows all arrows and quarrels sent his way, fire and boiling oil are deflected, his orswyrm attacks the gates…

Do the Storratian arrive in time to counter-attack? Do the last defenders escape the keep through secret passageways or sally ports?

You will have to wait for the publication of The Fractured Portal to find out.

Meanwhile, read The Cracked Amulet if you have not already done so 🙂