I really enjoyed Soulkeeper earlier this year (see my review here) so when I held a round of #ConquerAChonker a couple of weeks ago, I knew I was in for a treat with its sequel, Ravencaller!
Book: Ravencaller by David Dalglish
Read before: No
Publication date: 19th March 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence, death and murder, in many creative ways; torture and murder of animals (cats and birds mostly); major and minor character death; gore/body horror; discussion of sex slavery (major character was previously a sex slave, though not during course of book); recovery from sexual abuse; discussion of pedophilia (none on page), including in a church setting; arson.
As always with sequels, I will try to keep things spoiler-free, but some things will inevitably slip through – it’s impossible to discuss, for example, characters in this book without you knowing they made it through book one. So, if you haven’t read Soulkeeper yet, and you want to go in without any knowledge, then now is your chance to TURN BACK! Also, a quick warning: don’t do what I usually do and flick to read the acknowledgements first. The author’s note discusses two serious spoilers quite openly!
So, after the explosive ending of Soulkeeper, our characters are trying to navigate life in a world under siege by creatures long thought to be myths. Turns out they’re real, and they want their land back; the invasion/reclamation of Adria’s church district, the impoverished Low Dock, is central to the whole book. So too is the alarming growth of Adria’s newfound powers, and the appearance of the Ravencallers, magicians who feed on the memories of those they have killed. Soulkeeper‘s primary antagonist was Janus, but here his gory magic is sidelined; he spends his few appearances needling Adria about her magic, and honestly, the switch away from him as a villain has really interesting implications. In his place as the POV baddie, we have Dierk, whom I instantly loathed – a pathetic, cowardly little psychopath with a crush on Adria, who is coached in how to become a Ravencaller by an unseen spirit. He’s small fry, however, compared to the constant looming threat of destruction for the humans of the city – it’s a survival story for both our central crew and humanity in general.
Agh, I’m so frustrated writing this, because I simply can’t tell you everything I loved about this book without some major spoilers! I’ve just spent the last twenty minutes explaining to my husband in minute detail how masterful the character work is, but you will have to put up with vague comments, I’m sorry. Please come yell at me in Twitter DMs if you’ve read this!
I loved that Adria had much more page-time here – her arc is incredible just across these two books, taking her from a good-hearted but exhausted priest struggling to see the value of prayer to an actual miracle worker. She was one of my favourite characters in the last book, but she became far and away my number one in this one; I really can’t give too much away, but every step she takes has such an impact on her character, and yet even though you can trace every change perfectly, you still end up open-mouthed at where she goes. This is the kind of deliciously clever character work I love – perfectly believable, but shocking! PLEASE come and talk to me about Adria’s development if you know what I’m talking about. Devin, by contrast, takes something of a backseat here. Interestingly, while Adria’s story is of cosmic power focused down to an extremely personal level, Devin is the opposite; one man trying to react to everything all at once. He didn’t seem to develop too much personally, since he was mostly on the peripheries of everyone else’s actions, trying to hold it all together; he acts more as an anchor for his various friends and family, and for the reader. I’ve compared these books to an RPG before, and when playing a game where the party splits up, there will of course be some characters who have more focus on their individual plots to move the overall plot to where it needs to go.
On that RPG note, I think the way this book handles its pace is also very similar to a good tabletop game. None of these characters are trying to be heroes (at least not at the start of their journeys!) but they all have individual personal storylines that drag them ever closer to the world-changing events. Even the plots I wasn’t a fan of, like Jacaranda’s (still a bit iffy on a male author writing about the recovery of a sexually abused woman), Dierk’s (why so much cat torture?!) and the battles in Low Dock (I just don’t love fight scenes), all contributed wonderfully well to the main trajectory of the story. It’s a clever way to keep the pace up with such a large cast – a really great halfway house between having everyone on one adventure together and character development suffering, and having everyone continents apart and barely connected until the end, a la Game of Thrones. The way this cast is handled is just wonderful; I said in my review of the last book that I wasn’t sure how something so gory and dark could be heartwarming, but I think it’s the tight focus that makes it feel so personal. We even get a chapter from cute fire spirit Puffy’s POV! I’m so invested in these characters – even though it’s action-heavy, the people are what make this book shine.
This book also does some really interesting things with religion and morality – this is probably not a series to read if you’re uncomfortable with reading about corruption in the church, or characters losing their faith in religion as an institution. I liked how the difference between belief in a deity and belief in religion was explored, and the huge implications that magic returning in a concrete way had for the myths of the world; there’s a wonderfully fun moment where one of the characters is forced to confront the idea that his favourite mythical creature is very different in the flesh. On the morality side of things, we see characters who started as lawful good slide, with every ‘lesser evil’ decision they’re forced to make, down to darkness, and characters who started as chaotic evil seem positively benign in comparison. It is, at its heart, a book about maintaining your humanity in the face of darkness, and that is explored in so many ways with each character – for all its action, fun and fast pace, this is a seriously intelligent fantasy when you stop to think.
This has been a really unsatisfying review to write, and I’m sorry if it’s unhelpfully vague, because I just can’t get into the specific little details that made me love it. Just imagine me getting very animated and waving my hands around a lot while I explain the perfection of Adria’s character arc to you – that enthusiasm is what you should take away from this. I’m terrified for what’s going to happen in the final book of the trilogy, which is out in February. Please get reading this series so you can join me in nail-biting on Voidbreaker‘s release day! Five out of five cats!