02 October 2009

James Barclay's Ravensoul Review - ~~ spoilers ~~

OK. I have been penting this up inside me for a long time now. I bought the book as soon as it came out, and loyally read the book cover to cover in order to complete the series I thought had ended at Book 6, Demonstorm. It was atrocious. The ending of 6 was dismal, not in its execution, but in its content. Terrible things just... happened. I suppose James did have a reputation of killing off main characters and I appreciated that - it was new to me at the time.

Ravensoul, Book7, returned to the Raven universe centred on the continent of Balaia. People were rebuilding, with The Unknown Warrior now as King of Balaia. This was probably the one thing that made the ending of Demonstorm less bitter. It was a humourous occasion, despite the grief over all the lost Raven members. As King, he has little power, he merely acts as a symbol for the people. He does all this while working in his bar in Xetesk. Fair play to him - its really funny to see a King throwing drunken patrons out!

The book takes its first nose dive when Hirad starts talking to the Unknown from beyond the grave. The dead are losing their world to something else, so there are restless spirits returning to Balaia. Hirad takes the corpse of a dead merchant but some horrific injuries, but he bears it up well. The aforementioned dive occurs when the Unknown refuses to recognise his friend, despite all the facts he knew. This may sound really nit-picky of me, but I didn't buy it. Sol/The Unknown Warrior had largely moved on, but he always hoped - somehow, he lived. He denounced Hirad as someone who had just read up on the Raven legend, throwing him out after nearly killing him. Another crazy patron, I suppose. Another thing was the way Hirad talked. It has been a while since Barclay wrote Demonstorm and the rest - 5 years or so - with the Raven sounding different. I identified with Hirad. He was my guy on the stage, so to speak. His old character didn't emerge much in this book, instead reduced to swearing at Ilkar and Denser and being rough. A general take of Hirad's character that I couldn't understand.

That wasn't too bad. It was just the execution. Then the biggest of the three terrible things occurs. 'Densyr'. Denser was a mage from Xetesk who was first viewed with suspicion with the others over where his loyalties stood, having originally hired them for Xetesk. Over time, he came to understand them and admire them, eventually casting aside his college's colours in a test of faith and joining the Raven. Since that event in Book 1, Denser was one of the most faithful member of the Raven. He sometimes held information vital to the mission to himself, often jeopardising the lives of the other Raven, but he meant well and Hirad often beat him around the head, providing some great moments.

Unfortunately for the Raven's unity, Denser is now the Lord of the Mount of Xetesk. Succeeding the anti-hero Styliann and imperious Dystran, he may well be the future of Xeteskian goodwill to the war-torn continents. It also immerses him in Xeteskian loyalties, superceding the old Raven loyalties, perhaps? The question is answered when he interacts with the Unknown. He pities the big man's life, spent mourning the Raven. He stands by the position of King strongly, however. His dismissal of the Hirad story is just as surprising as the Unknown's. They know something fishy is going on, and when something fishy happens in Balaia it usually calls for the Raven to rally up and fight something. This time, Denser will have none of that. He has the Unknown subdued. He imprisons the returning Raven spirits that inhabit recent corpses. He condemns his past as a Raven mage and embraces his destiny as a Lord of the Mount. He even goes so far as to change his name to suit the favoured 'y' of Xeteskians, becoming Densyr. Nothing seems to have mattered at all to him in the past, even dismissing his dead wife's spirit out of hand. He becomes a real fat git, as Hirad would say.

Awful. Denser just cast aside his entire past of noble causes and the like and all the friendships he ever made - even when they're smiling at him to his face. It felt so flippant I put the book down for the night. Not forever, just the night. I couldn't believe it to be happening, but it did and I was strongly hoping for a repentance. It didn't come until the very, very end!

Third and final major point. The ending and indeed the general plot. The world of Balaia, Wes and Calaius has been rebuilding from the Wesman Invasions, the Nightchild storms, the Elfsorrow, the College Wars and the Demon Invasion. Instead of getting a break, the Garonin invaded. They were an alien species adept at absorbing life energy to meet their avaracious needs. Balaia is teeming with verdant countryside, so they attacked it. Using great machines, they set to work. They also had guns that are never called guns. Resistance to magic. No telling weaknesses. Basically, Balaia is fudged from the outset. Usually the Raven would find a way bit nothing is spared. The world shrivels and dies while everyone escapes through some magical tunnel to another world. Defended from attacks on all sides, moving a long distance to a new world, it all looks like the classic beleaguered Raven defenders scenario. In a very Dream Warriors-style move, the Unknown harnesses the power of imagination to destroy some Garonin. In addition to all this, the Raven got their old bodies back, in their prime. It all sums up as the total destruction of everything the Raven ever fought for. After 6 books, Balaia doesn't matter anymore and this undefeatable force emerges to destroy it. For real, this time. Lame.

So that is pretty much it. The Raven are left on an uninhabited world with a few hundred survivors from their old world. An apologetic Densyr is brushed over without much chastisement. Jonas, the Unknown's son, has all the qualities to lead them. In the end, everything has been totally destroyed. Everything that happened in the first six books is rendered null and void.

Why bother reading the original six? Why not read Ravensoul on its own? No. Read the original six and experience the camaraderie, the sorrow, the laughs and the pain. They are the epitome of the Raven series. Dawnthief and Noonshade were the excellent knockout duo to start; Nightchild was the taming experience that displayed Barclay's range; Elfsorrow had a great setting and a fantastic feel to every Act; Shadowheart had some of the most memorable scenes with the individual colleges and Demonstorm. Demonstorm had all the lessons of the previous books built in. The people of Balaia had learned resistance to things greater than themselves. The Raven were crucial to their success but in the end it was the effort of a continent's worth of allies (and enemies!) built up from the previous books that defeated the Demons.

So what if so many of the Raven died at the end of Book 6. It was an ending that had a good note to it, a handful of redeeming factors. They had fought and died for what they always believed in - "the one things greater than the Raven" - Balaia. To see it so casually wasted is beyond me.

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