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Nightchild (Chronicles of the Raven 3) by James Barclay
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575082847
Date: 13 November 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The concluding title in the first Raven trilogy, I reviewed Nightchild when it first came out back in 2001. That review is reprinted in this issue.

"...the Raven are faced with a terrible moral dilemma: Lyanna, the daughter of Raven warrior Denser and mage Erienne, has been blessed (or cursed) with the power of The One. This power is threatening the very land of Balaia and the four magic colleagues who are desperate to control the power or stop it--even if that means killing a five year old girl. Erienne, fearful for the life of her daughter, goes into hiding and the Raven have little time to find her. When they do, they face a terrible choice that none of them want to make."

Gollancz has described young British writer James Barclay as their most successful debut fantasy author ever -- no mean feat given that particular publisher's output. The Chronicles of The Raven began with Dawnthief, continued with Noonshade and now concludes with the release of Nightchild. For those who like their fantasy rip-roaring and full of adventure, this series fulfills these criteria admirably.

The land of Balia is nicely compact, not the sprawling fantasyscape favoured by a lot of authors. This is an island dominated by four colleges of Magic, each with a differing philosophy and approach. (The rules of magic here are beautifully constructed.) Such an arrangement cannot help but produce tension between them, but it also gives rise to some interesting alliances. To the west of the Blackthorne Mountains, a range that conveniently splits the island in two, lie the uncharted Wesman Heartlands, a place inhabited by a race of tribal warmongers intent on spreading themselves over the whole of Balia. Into this mix is thrown The Raven, a band of mercenaries made up of barbarians, warriors and mages. Their reputation is fearsome and they more than live up to it.

The first book introduces us to this motley crew. They are tough and unforgiving, fiercely loyal to each other and very human -- even the Elf! By this I mean that a large part of The Raven's charm is the fact that they curse and bicker and bitch like any close group of friends would. This is a very real group of people -- sure, they're riding dragons and fighting giant wolves -- but the characters themselves are totally believable and this is a testament to the quality of Barclay's writing and the main key to the brilliance of these novels. Furthermore, Barclay is shamelessly unsentimental about his characters -- the reader should be careful not to get too attached to them as this is an author who is not afraid to put his people through the mill -- and they don't always come out in one piece!

We follow The Raven on a series of adventures so action-packed that the reader scarcely gets time to draw breath. Barclay communicates exactly what is at stake here. If The Raven fail in their various quests, basically we can all go home and wait to die. The sheer heart of The Raven, their individual and communal heroics have us gunning for them all the way and this is something the author skillfully sustains throughout the trilogy.

Of particular note with these novels is the way Barclay perpetuates the action by consequence. Each triumph that The Raven achieves dictates the next problem they must face. It is an astonishingly successful and (for the reader) compulsive storytelling device. In the latest release, Nightchild, the consequence in question is Lyanna, a child conceived by two of the mages in The Raven. Five years have passed since the events in Noonshade, and The Raven have gone their separate ways. War-ravaged Balia is slowly healing, but this process is being hampered by freak weather conditions that are battering the land, conditions attributed to disturbances in the mana field that runs through all things. It becomes clear that Lyanna is the cause of all this, the product of a union between two of the great colleges and the likely focus of a daunting prophesy that will bring about the end of the collegiate system that has been in place for hundreds of years. At the age of four, Lyanna is too young to control the wild and immensely powerful mana that courses through her and so she is taken by Erienne, her mother, to be guided and trained by a secretive sect. They are pursued on their way to this magical retreat by various parties, intent on either killing the child or taking her and her magical potential and using her in the game of collegiate politics. Also pursuing are The Raven, reformed and looking to save both Balia (once again!) and one of their own.

This is difficult stuff to encapsulate in a review due to the plot threads that flow through the two previous books and I would certainly suggest you pick them up first before ploughing through Nightchild. It won't read well in isolation, but as a continuation and conclusion to this punchy series, this is fitting and equally exciting addition. This will certainly appeal to David Gemmell fans, but if you're just after a bit of quality adventure escapism (and what is fantasy if not that?) James Barclay's series is a damn good place to start. Really gripping and exciting stuff and highly recommended.

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