James Barclay was the first author to introduce me to modern language (you know, the f*word) in a Fantasy novel. The rawness of his world and the ‘barbaric’ ways of some of his characters have endeared him and his writing to me. The fact that he once responded to an e-mail I’d written him, made him my favorite author to date. (Well, shared second place with David Gemmell) Here’s my review of Dawnthief, book one in the Chronicles of the Raven series.
This Fantasy novel follows the struggles and trials of The Raven, a group of mercenaries dragged into the fight to save the world of Balaia. It starts out with The Unknown Warrior, Hirad and Ilkar among others stumbling upon Denser, a dark mage from the Xetesk, the dark College of Magic, whose presence alone gets them into trouble time and time again. When they discover that the ancient and evil Wytch Lords have returned to Balaia to destroy them all, they grudgingly accept his contract which changes all of their lives for good. Joined in the fight by Dordovan mage Erienne, Will, Jandyr and the shape changer Thraun, they deal with massing Wesmen, the constant squabbling between the four Colleges and Sha Kaan – ruler of the Brood of Kaan dragons – whom Denser angered in his haste to save the world, as he stole the amulet containing important information about Dawnthief. The Lightstealer. The spell that could destroy the world if it were to fall into the wrong hands.
Barclay set a fast pace throughout the novel. It’s sharply written: never a dull moment or yawn inducing descriptions. Action and drama intertwine and humor is used as comic relief. The plot is clear but Barclay still throws in some twists and surprises. He writes in such a way you want to continue reading, even though it’s late and you’re tired. As Fantasy icon David Gemmell wrote: “Barclay writes with power, pace and a wonderful sense of humor. Better than that, he creates novels you want to read again and again.” The writing is full of actions and is fast paced. Barclay writes humor very well.
I loved this book so much that I’ve raced through the other six books as well. And now that I’ve read them all, certain things become even more awe-inspiring and certain deaths pull at my heartstrings even more. This was the first book featuring the Raven and the first book I’ve read of Barclay. He amazed me with his writing style and how dark and gritty the book was. Not that this turns me off (I read a lot of Military Fantasy) but I was only used to that style when it came to Fantasy novels which heavily featured armies. Sure there are armies present in the story, but the focus is on the Raven.
I found myself reacting strongly to the characters Barclay created. They are not lovable – they are mercenaries – but for some reason I got sucked in. I think it has to do with the fact that they feel so real. The Unknown Warrior with his painful past, his death, resurrection and his uncertain future. Hirad who keeps losing friends left and right and knows no other family than the Raven. Ilkar who has to put aside his College’s beliefs to save the world.
Ras, Richmond, Sirendor and Talan (original members of the Raven) who died or left in the early chapters of the book. Denser who believes in the possibility to return to the old ways of “one magic, one mage” but knows the Colleges are too set in their ways. Erienne who lost her children and husband and who has finally found some happiness knowing she is carrying another child.
Thraun who has another side to him which he fears and doesn’t want. Will who cares about Thraun as if they were brothers but knows he isn’t able to help Thraun. Jandyr who wants to save the world and ends up helping the Raven do just that, dying in the process. Darrick, master tactician and friend to the Raven, who secretly wishes to join them. Styliann, Lord of the Mount, who wants to make the Wesmen pay for the brutal rape and murder of the woman he loved. They are what makes Dawnthief (and what makes the other books) so great. Without their jokes, their tears and their laughter, Barclay’s words would’ve never come to life.
Dawnthief is a great example of the High or Epic Fantasy. But it’s not the typical Evil-is-upon-us-so-let’s-save-the-world-before-all-of-us-die kind of High or Epic Fantasy. Barclay is very good at making the “heroes” not look like “heroes”. The Raven didn’t jump at the chance to save the world – they had no choice – and they do put their bond before the fate of the world. This becomes clear when Hirad refuses to go on if Denser doesn’t free The Unknown Warrior from his fate as a Protector. Dawnthief is an example of another style of High or Epic Fantasy in which the fine line between good and evil, protagonists, anti heroes and antagonists is not as clear.