Ravensoul by James Barclay
Published by Gollancz UK, November 2008
ISBN: 9780575081994 (Trade Paperback); 9780575082007 (Hardcover)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Never say never again….
At the end of the last Legends of the Raven book (Demonstorm) in 2004, things had got to a fairly satisfactory ending: though most of the Raven were dead (a Barclay trademark!), the world of Balaia was at peace, the multidimensional rift (which had been the cause of much of the previous disturbance) healed and the survivors of the Demonstorm had settled into relatively peaceful post-conflict occupations. Sol, the Unknown Warrior (and coincidentally First King of Balaia) was the landlord of The Raven’s Rest, raising his family, whilst Denser was the Lord of the Mount, principal of the magic college of Xetesk. And so it closed, with the losses mourned yet accepted, as something that had to happen for the sake of the future. It was widely accepted that this was as far as things were going to go.
Therefore, this is a book that many thought they would never see. For James Barclay has returned to the world of his extremely popular Raven series, revisiting the place that made him a genre bestseller and, more enticingly, characters that fans never realised they would meet again.
Here you can return again to read about the mercenaries they call the Raven, past and present. For, a decade later than Demonstorm, the dead are returning, and they need something from the living. Their souls and those of the living are at risk, and it is up to the Raven to sort it out.
Thus the book begins strikingly, with the return of old characters in new bodies. The souls of the dead, under threat, are drawn to those they knew best. Removed from their place of rest, they are being hunted by a new enemy travelling across dimensions, the Garonin. These seemingly unstoppable opponents appear from nowhere in Balaia, mining mana, the magical force that drives this world. Any attack on them means they vanish to other dimensions in the blink of an eye. When engaged in combat, their speed is phenomenal, their weaponry awesome and their battle-skills are ferociously scary.
And so the Raven return, fighting not only for their own futures, but also for Balaia.
For many fans, this book is what they’ve needed for a while: the world-in-peril, the return of beloved characters, and more importantly the interaction between them that made The Raven so memorable. There are chances here to make amends for earlier mistakes, to reinforce friendships and sort out misunderstandings.
As well as the camaraderie’s of old, James has also addressed other issues here. Perhaps most importantly, this novel is about death. The book examines the necessity of death and its value in life, as well as touching issues which are the foundations of Epic Fantasy. Heroism, loyalty, bravery, family values, comradeship and betrayal – all are here. As you might expect, such eventful change is not always easily expected, or earned. Ultimately, it is a tale perhaps not only of death but of redemption, though with major prices to pay.
In some author’s hands, revisiting old favourites could be seen as a cop-out, a safety net, writing to satisfy the desires of a baying fan-base without actually anything new to say. Not the case here - James here has used the skills honed on the Ascendants series to produce a taut, fast-paced novel, in my opinion, the best of the Raven books so far.
There is always the risk for a writer that a book written later in a series can be seen by demanding readers as being of lesser quality, and this will adversely affect the good feeling generated by earlier books. I’m pleased to write that this is not the case here. This is not a book written ‘just to satisfy fans’, with characters given cameos to satisfy the faithful. Though many will appreciate the return of favourite characters, there is, pleasingly, a new tale to tell that is worth reading. It is perhaps not a book to read without reading the previous novels, though there’s enough backplot to do so without too much trouble.
It is a fast read and an engrossing one. I’m pleased to type that the writing is still strong, the characterisations both familiar and memorable, the dialogue and the action as good as ever. It is very much an homage to David Gemmell, with all the attributes of the best of his work.
Reading Ravensoul is the literary equivalent of meeting old friends you haven’t seen for a long time, and picking things up as if you’ve never been away from each other. Fans will love this, though the journey is not easy and events rarely simple, as you should expect from a Barclay novel. There were moments here that made my jaw drop, battles that made me wince and moments that were touchingly emotional. There are acts of love and sacrifice here, of faith and redemption. If dealing with death is hard the first time, James here shows you that it can be harder.
The Raven live on. A bittersweet experience, but one well worth it.
Raven! Raven with me!
Mark Yon, November 2008
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