Review: Dawnthief by James Barclay

Dawntheif by James Barclay
Dawntheif by James Barclay

Dawnthief

James Barclay

Gollancz, 2008 (mass market)

James Barclay’s Dawnthief is the first book in the Chronicles of the Raven which, as it turns out, is the first of two trilogies featuring this band of mercenaries.  The Raven, composed of six men plus one elf, are a hardened group of mercenaries renowned for their fighting ability and ability to succeed at the toughest missions.  In Dawnthief, the Raven are quickly and almost accidentally drawn into a quest to recover the nigh-apocalyptic spell Dawnthief for the dark wizard Denser in order to stave assault from the ravenous and aggressive wesmen and their powerful magic overlords.

While an enjoyable piece of sword swinging, spell casting action it is a novel that suffers from several troubling flaws that kept me from truly enjoying the novel.  It’s grim tone and mercenary characters are likely to draw comparisons to Glen Cook’s Black Company unfortunately I never found myself growing attached to any of the characters (unlike say Murgen or Croaker) or, when I did it was towards the end of the novel.  Which in a novel that is, more or less, centered around a core set of characters a bit of a problem.  Barclay seems to waffle back and forth between his desire to create a novel of epic proportions while at the same time deliver and convey the sense of brotherhood and family amongst this small band of mercenaries.  In truth he fell a bit short on both marks.

The novel uses the 3rd person perspective which is a perspective that can be used quite well to get inside the head of characters and, since it can refocus the narrative to more the one character allows the reader to jump into the mindset of more the one character.  Unfortunately, the narrative remains curiously distant.  The reader remains an impartial observer, particularly when it comes to the Raven, and I never felt a real attempt to bring the reader into that brotherhood.  To complicate matters further, Barclay breaks his focus on the Raven to detail events happening elsewhere in the world and with characters whose paths never cross the Raven’s or, when they do, only towards the end of the novel.  This was particularly frustrating during the novel’s climax as the end of the Raven’s quest is broken up by battles being fought elsewhere by characters who, to me at least, mattered less.

Again it is easy to see Barclay chose this approach.  It does give the novel a bit of perspective but at the cost of how well the reader comes to know the Raven.  Barclay also takes a cavalier approach to death and no-one, not even the members of the Raven, are safe from complete and utter destruction.  However, since I never felt any real attachment to the characters in the first place their deaths lacked any real impact and seemed, to me at least, shock for shock’s sake.  In truth, while we are told the Raven are renowned, many of their actions; particularly the castle assault towards the middle of the novel go horrendously long.  The intent being a sort of “I’m too old for this shit” Lethal Weapon mentality somehow never manages to tarnish the Raven’s reputation.  Again, it wasn’t something I was completely sold on and I found the air of death and near failure the frequently followed the Raven to be a bit hard to swallow.

While I had trouble bonding with any of the characters that isn’t to say that Barclay’s characterization of the Raven is bad.  Thought it took a while to warm up to him, Hirard Coldheart becomes quite an enjoyable read particularly when he is sticking it to uppity mages.  I also enjoyed the tension between the rival mages and reluctant companions Ilkar and Denser.  Barclay admirably portrays Ilkar’s struggle to shirk a lifetime of expectations founded upon his Julastan College’s rivalry and schism with Denser’s Xeteskan school.  Their uneasy alliance and slow build of trust and respect is paced steadily and only really reaches its conclusion at the novel’s finale.  Barclay also writes some excellent action scenes and, despite the prevalence of death amongst “major” characters, manages to steer clear of gore.  There is a wonderful scene towards the end of the novel where the Raven, cut off from magical help, must defend against animated statues in a pitch black room.  It is an amazingly tense scene and one of those few moments where we get to see just how effective the Raven can be as a group.  The magic used by the mages of Balaia is visually impressive and, with its division amongst four colleges, never quite explored in depth.   Mages have limits in Barclay’s world and magic can’t do everything but whenever they do, do something it is with a typically thrilling visual flair and, in many cases, a fair amount of tensions.

It seems that the next book in the series, Noonshade, picks up minutes after Dawnthief which is an approach in series that I certainly appreciate.  However, I am uncertain if I’m going to go on reading.  Dawnthief was a book I really wanted to like.  While it hints at a strong cast of unique and interesting characters it doesn’t quite deliver in bringing those characters to life.  I saw the narrative as confused to what the focus of attention should be: the Raven themselves or the epic events they’re involved and, as a result,  that confusion meant neither aspect gelled properly for me.  Dawnthief is by no means a bad novel but one that should be approached with mitigated expectations.

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