I was sent an advance copy of this book by Harper Voyager. I never manage to get through all the books that I’m sent, and I duck out on a lot somewhere around the 20% mark if they aren’t grabbing me. But hey, I like things that are dark and feathered, right? So how did debut novelist Wragg do with this outing?

First up, here’s what you get (very briefly):

Chel, a young nobleman of no great consequence, ends up stuck with a cowardly but somehow adorable prince, and after some intrigue and fuckery, they find themselves captured and marched along in a series of shenanigans with The Black Hawk Company. None of them tend to like each other all that much… or are they secretly good pals? There are cannibals, evil priests, knives, and lots of being yelled at. But why have they been abducted, and what is the true cause of unrest in the land?

Anyway, there’s no point me explaining the story because you haven’t read it. So let me just tell you what I really enjoyed about The Black Hawks.

There’s nothing that’s particularly new in terms of theme here – we have a fairly standard fantasy world (no particular time period or culture comes to mind), occupied solely by humans, in which a mercenary company kidnap a prince and take him on a journey. I can get burned out on fantasy pretty easily if it feels like we’re treading old ground, but although Wragg hasn’t opted to mimic a particular historical culture or create ecology changing magic systems, The Black Hawks feels fresh, energetic and it was very easy to devour. It avoids being dense, and whilst there are a quite a lot of characters to keep track of, they’re all very well defined so you can do away with a spreadsheet or glossary. It’s the characters that are the strongest element of what I found to be a very enjoyable book, and if you take a look at the cover, you kind of know what you’re in for.

The Black Hawk Company, as well as the prince and our hero, Chel, all feel like well rounded, fully realised characters, a memorable cast of misfits you can’t help but love. They’re a pretty diverse mix, and they’re individuality is what allows Wragg to make the smallest conversations brim with fun. They’re at times crude, sexy, boisterous, angry, mocking, mysterious and more. And while there may be some pretty dangerous types among them, from the creepy Spider to the dauntless Loveless, they are all entirely capable of getting shitfaced in deeply unheroic style. There’s nobody in this book who is right all the time, and this story feels about as far from a chosen one farmboy narrative  as you can get, while somehow retaining the hero’s journey feel. Relationships are delivered slowly – a real cool build throughout the story – and you absorb them developing through subtle dialogue shifts. For me, it’s the dialogue that really makes this book work. Lemon is likely to be the fan favourite, but for me, Loveless is the most interesting and has the most depth. I particularly enjoyed her theory about why men turn to shitty pursuits.

There are no monsters, and there doesn’t seem to be any magic in here either, although there are a couple of technological surprises that caught me off guard. I’m sure that there are some surprises in store for us in book 2. Rather than heading into hard magic systems or thousand year old histories, Wragg captures the classic fantasy spirit of adventure and exploration, wraps it with stabbed backs and cannibals and gifts it to you on a bed of action. The story feels modern and clipped, and achieves that special magic of long periods of intensity without feeling heavy.

I’ll take a moment to talk about the protagonist, because maybe he was one of the things that I really enjoyed. He’s just so… ordinary. Chel is an ‘everyperson’ character that it’s very easy to relate to. He’s just as confused about what’s going on as we are, and that makes him easy to follow. He’s not really the star of the show – that would be the Hawks themselves, who are all larger than life murderer-with-a-heart-of-gold types (except maybe Spider, who is just a dick) and Chel lets us experience them without any kind of reader ego getting in the way. I don’t remember reading about a protagonist so utterly reluctant to hurt anybody at all (even though I sometimes found myself thinking “FFS CHEL PUT A KNIFE IN THEM”). It’s refreshing stuff.

I tend to feel that reviews that are purely complementary are easy to dismiss, so I feel obligated to look for niggles – but on the whole, I only review books that I really liked, so it’s not always easy. Whilst the story concludes in a way that feels satisfying, I would have liked a little more tie-up from some of the loose ends. I prefer each novel in a series to feel like a standalone (which this isn’t), but for binge-readers I can’t see it being a problem. Maybe because this book isn’t actually out yet and I can’t get part 2 yet, grrrrr.

A vibrant cast, intrigue and action come together in this blazing debut from David Wragg, and I see it as having wide appeal across the genre. If you can’t live without magic, it’s not for you, but I’m sure that grimdark fans will claim it’s grimdark because of the Hawks, noblebrighters will claim noblebright because Chel is a pacifist, and it’ll be called quest fantasy and all sorts besides. I’m going to label it WitPunk.

The Black Hawks, by David Wragg, is available from 3rd October 2019. It’s published in the UK by Harper Voyager.

Wragg

 

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