Monday, 24 November 2008

‘Ravensoul’ – James Barclay (Gollancz)


I don’t know about you but as far as I’m concerned, cold and blustery days are just made for curling up somewhere warm and reading a good book while the rain hammers on the windows. Saturday was one of those days and Sunday was as well. After a quick trip to sort the car tyres out I came back with no feeling in my fingers and no desire to step outside until I had to go to work on Monday. Every single radiator, in the house, was on and I had a bottle of my favourite beer to drink. I also had a copy (signed!) of James Barclay’s ‘Ravensoul’, a long time coming but well worth the wait...

I’ve been a fan of ‘The Raven’ (fantasy fiction’s toughest mercenary group after the Black Company) ever since I fell prey to a case of ‘ooh that looks like a nice cover’ and picked up a copy of ‘Elfsorrow’. The six ‘Raven’ books written by Barclay (two trilogies, ‘Chronicles of the Raven’ and ‘Legends of the Raven’) are rollercoaster rides full of swashbuckling derring-do where you also get to see the members of The Raven grow and develop over time. Every action has a consequence and Barclay isn’t afraid to make his characters face up to these consequences and how they affect the group as a whole (unless characters die first, it’s a tough job being a mercenary...) 2004 saw the publication of ‘Demonstorm’ and what looked like the final outing for The Raven. Given what happened it should have been the final outing but things are never that simple where these guys are concerned...

Ten years have passed since the events of ‘Demonstorm’ and Sol and Denser (the last surviving members of The Raven) are still busy helping the nation of Balaia rebuild after the demonic attack. Things are about to take a turn for the worse though with an early morning visitor, to Sol’s bar, who has no business being there. He died ten years ago you see... Across Balaia, and the Elven continent of Calaius, the dead are returning to life and warning the living of what has driven them out of the afterlife. The Elves already know what is coming and they are scared.
Something is coming and it will not until the world has been bled dry of the very life force that sustains it. Sol and Denser must take a stand against this new menace but, luckily for them, they won’t be doing this on their own. The Raven will stand together one final time...

When I heard that James Barclay was writing another chapter of ‘The Raven’ I was excited at the prospect of more Raven action but was a little apprehensive at how it was going to happen. ‘Demonstorm’ rounded things off with an air of real finality, how could the story continue? Well, I’m pleased to say that Barclay gets the gang back together in a way that satisfactorily answers any questions that might arise. The bottom line is that there is big trouble on the horizon and there’s only one group of people who can head it off (and they won’t let anything stop them)...

If you’re a fan of the series then ‘Ravensoul’ is full of more what made the preceding books such fun to read. The action just doesn’t stop for a second and I had to keep reading for fear that I wouldn’t be able to catch up if I stopped for one second. The stakes have never been so high and Barclay keeps things very tight and fast as a result. Even when things get a bit ‘technical’ (i.e. the ins and outs of a particular magic spell is discussed) things still rattle along. As someone who cannot stand getting bogged down in unnecessary detail this was very much a good thing as far as I was concerned!

The earlier ‘Raven’ books are known for packing an awful lot into a small space and ‘Ravensoul’ carries on this fine tradition with plenty of adventure, pitched battles and magic. Unsurprisingly (the Raven are mercenaries after all) it’s the pitched battles that form the greater part of the book with combat beginning the second the enemy arrive on Balaia and not finishing until, well... that would be telling! One long pitched battle doesn’t sound all that exciting but Barclay pulls it off by not only switching locales but switching viewpoints as well. Not only do we get to witness events up close and personal (a little too close sometimes, I could sometimes feel myself holding my breath as people dodged swords and axes etc), we also get to see it ‘widescreen’ as Barclay pans out and shows us that all of the individual set pieces combine to form something pretty damn epic. Barclay also isn’t afraid to have his characters throw magic at obstacles in order to win through, he simply avoids any charges of ‘getting characters off the hook’ by not letting the magic win through every time. The end result of this is spectacle on a grand scale as towers come crashing down, forests burn and people on both sides get on the wrong end of some particularly nasty spells!

It was the characterisation that really made ‘Ravensoul’ something special for me however. As someone who had followed the series from the beginning it had been really humbling to see the Raven stand together and grow together, always ready to make the ultimate sacrifice if one of their own was in danger. ‘Ravensoul’ asks the question, ‘what do you do if you’ve made the ultimate sacrifice but another sacrifice needs to be made?’ The answer is simple; you roll up your sleeves and get working. That’s what the Raven do and it’s a really sobering experience to see what certain of them must go through on their return from the afterlife. They’re mistrusted, feared and reviled but still go all out to do what is right. Another member, who is still alive, learns of the sacrifice he must make and the resulting scenes with his family didn’t make me almost cry at all! No sir, there was some dust in my eye... that’s it, dust...
Anyway, moving on... Barclay has a lot of things to say about the true nature of heroism and he leaves his reader in no doubt as to what he thinks this is. Really powerful stuff.
The Raven have grown together over the years and ‘Ravensoul’ takes that growth one step further and then ties things off in a way that just seems... right. I don’t think we’ll see any more of them but what a way to go out!

‘Ravensoul’ is a more than fitting finale to a series that I’ve really enjoyed. Fans will love it; newcomers to the series could read this on its own (as there’s plenty of ‘what has gone before’ filler type stuff) but would be advised to start on ‘Dawnthief’ first and see what they think. I think you’ll like it.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

6 comments:

Anrake said...

wow, sounds cool. I've never heard of these books before but they just jumped to the top of my to be read list.

Jeff C said...

I have an omnibus for the first 2 raven books, and last night i broke down and ordered book 3 from Book Depository. If I like them, i will probably buy the last 4, along with the first 2 again, so i have matching covers for all 7!

ediFanoB said...

I think I have to keep an eye on these books. Sounds verypromising forme.

wendy said...

I'm catching up on over 500 fantasy related blog entries right now and this one brought my skimming to a halt!

I'm ashamed to say I've had the six raven books for yonks ... they've even got the coloured page edges to match the cover ... shows how long they've been hanging around neglected eh. But, not for long.

They've just been bumped up on the TBR table. (Yes, table, not pile!!)

I'm just starting on Brent Week's 'Shadows Edge' so that trilogy must be finished first ... I'm loving the characters and can't put it down.

Cheers for the review :o)

Graeme Flory said...

Anrake - Check out 'Dawnthief' first and then go from there... ;o)

Jeff - That's the only annoying thing about 'Ravensoul' for me, different cover to all the other ones in my collection...

ediFanoB - Like I said to Anrake, check out 'Dawnthief' first :o)

Hey Wendy - I'm glad you liked the review (and that it brought your skimming to a halt!) I've got those editions as well and was a little gutted that 'Ravensoul' was released with different coverart. I've got Brent Weeks' books to get through as well, at some point when things aren't so busy...

wendy said...

Halt indeedy. I always feel awful when I've realised I've a whole series by an author stashed away and forgotten. Think I need to weed out my spare room and discover some more lost gems eh.

Your in for a treat with Brent Weeks ... I should have said characters you love to hate too. All his main characters are complex though. But, then you'll have read all the favourable reviews from other blogs ... and they ain't kidding.

Weeks goes for the jugular on many issues ... at times wrenching, unpalatable literally and metaphorically (and don't get excited; not a zombie in sight LOL), holding the mirror to many unsavoury aspects of humanity ... and pretty much going the gamut of emotions.

And, reader expectations (or mine and a friend's at least) of plot sometimes backfire spectacularly. A few shockers really - always good that :o)

Phew! As you can tell, I'm really enjoying these gritty books.

Look forward to the Barclay interview. That's sure to make me read the raven books next.

And, yes, content is king but these paperbacks sure are pretty. I'm a sucker for good covers. I'm sure that's why I picked them up originally.

If I don't post before Christmas, hope you and yours have a great one :o)