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The Raven

by John Lawson

(Publish America, 2006, £24.95, 618 pages; ISBN: 1-4241-4380-2.)

Review by Stuart Carter

cover scanOK, 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 we?

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 fantastic".

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 end.

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 gibberish.

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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