(Publish America, 2006, £24.95, 618 pages; ISBN: 1-4241-4380-2.)
let's get one thing straight here before we get into any reviewing proper:
I'm not a particular fan of high fantasy. Knights, wizards, dragons,
quests, sorcery, elves and silly names for the most part leave me cold.
I've read, and even enjoyed, books with any and all of these in, but
for the most part I'm a dyed-in-the-wool sf man.
There, that's my cards on the table. Let's do some reviewing, shall
The Raven sees John Lawson advance his craft quite significantly,
again pulling no punches with his depiction of "real" lives
in a fantasy setting -- a style I'm half-tempted to refer to as "kitchen-sink
We return to the world introduced in Witch Ember back
in 2003; a grindingly realistic, multi-layered and well-realised fantastical
landscape, familiar enough to anyone who's read almost anything in the
genre, but with twists enough to once more whet the curiosity.
Guiromelans, the eponymous "Raven", is a fallen knight on
a barely understood quest for redemption. Ravens are the finest soldiers
this world has to offer -- the ninjas of the knightly world, if you
will. Sworn to a strict code of conduct, they are the very best of the
best: brave, strong, honourable and loyal to the death. To this list
of Guiromelans' qualities we might now also append "drunk"
as a result of the events in Witch Ember, in which he well and
truly betrayed the trust of a lady in need -- a most serious breach
of his ethical code -- because she happened to be a witch.
Why did he do this? Because the prophets of his religion, Medianism
(a thinly disguised form of Christianity), demand the death of all witches
-- without exception. As a result of his adherence to such dogma, the
army he commanded has been wiped out, he has lost the love of his life
(the aforementioned witch) and is only able to get out of bed in the
morning by drinking himself into oblivion every night.
In a lesser man such misfortune might have brought about a crisis of
conscience, but Guiromelans is made of sterner stuff. He clings to his
faith all the more tightly and, in an effort to prove himself, lurches
towards a barely realised fanaticism -- the witch hunt to end all witch
hunts. This is where The Raven begins, as we follow his ever-more
bloody adventures with pirates, mad sorcerers, enchanted castles, rough
Norsemen, centaurs: anything a harsh and unforgiving world might conceivably
throw at a knight half mad with sorrow and guilt.
And the wonderful thing is that Lawson, whilst not a writer on the
level of, say, China Mieville, manages to avoid most of the stereotypical
traps of the genre. The Raven twists, turns, doubles back on
itself, falls over, leaps to its feet again and basically thrashes about
exactly as you would expect someone in Guiromelans' predicament to do.
It's quite an uncompromising book in some ways, concerned with a different
type of heroism than most of its fellows. Amidst all the elements of
the fantastic I came to feel there were genuine people here; damaged
people; people who might do better to give up the fight, to just lay
down and surrender, but who nevertheless struggle on, somehow coping
with lives of unremitting struggle and hardship. And I believed
in them doing so, even came to respect them for it.
Despite this emotional verisimilitude none of the characters are sacred.
Just when you might be thinking, "He's a major character, he's
been on these pages a long time, he's safe," Lawson can pull the
rug out from under you, to not insignificant effect. I guarantee you
won't be able to predict what will happen a mere ten pages ahead in
The Raven, let alone a hundred. This unpredictability and the
gruesome, unrelenting pace of the action kept me guessing till the very
It's worth mentioning, too, that Lawson's writing style in The Raven
is a nicely transparent form, one which never intrudes or obstructs,
and does the job of moving the story along mostly very well indeed.
My main reservation, as I mentioned in my review of Witch Ember,
is that Lawson has a tendency to overuse the device of "foreign"
words, and there were occasionally whole sentences that I struggled
to grasp the meaning of, so loaded down were they with italicised, accented
I confess, I was initially dismayed when I saw the thickness of this
book, especially given my penchant for science over magic; but although
it would benefit from some hearty editing, there is much in The Raven
to be admired and enjoyed.
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