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Elfsorrow: Legends of the Raven by James Barclay
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575082779
Date: 13 November 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The first book of the second Raven trilogy, I originally reviewed Elfsorrow back in 2002 - we're rerunning that review in this issue.

"The Raven travel to a new continent in search of mages to help the ruined college of Julatsa rebuild . . . and find themselves in the midst of an ancient curse - a curse that has unleashed a plague that threatens to wipe out the elven race. Barclay excels with another tale that pitches The Raven against the clock and unseen foes. Full of desperate fights and secret betrayals the story also fills in more of Balaia's history and delves deeper into the ancient emnities between the colleges"

In The Raven, British writer James Barclay has surely given us one of the most exciting genre creations that pulp fantasy has seen in a good while. His first series, Chronicles of The Raven (consisting of Dawnthief, Noonshade and Nightchild) received generous plaudits from readers and reviewers alike and clearly pleased his publishers, Gollancz, who now release the first book in a second series (Legends of The Raven) featuring this butch, burly sword and magic wielding band of mercenaries.

Elfsorrow carries this saga forward, expanding the action to the southern continent of Barclay's fictitious world. The war between the colleges of magic which decimated Balia has now escalated further with Xetesk looking to gain the upper hand by any means available to them. There is no Geneva convention here and so the dark college will stop at nothing to gain dominance. They send a research party to the southern continent of Calaius, home to the elven races, to recover some magical texts from a sacred temple. In doing so, they unleash a plague that threatens the existence of the elves and The Raven – two of whom are elves – are drawn into the ensuing conflict.

This isn't necessarily what I would considerer ground-breaking stuff, but this is one of the very things I like about Barclay's work. His stories and the characters that inhabit them are written entirely without pretension. They follow in the best traditions of the genre without being hackneyed. Indeed there is a realism to The Raven that makes their adventures so refreshing and ultimately hugely readable. Sure, they're awesomely powerful and you wouldn't want to meet them down a dark alley, but as characters they are so human – even the elves! The good guys aren't all good and the bad guys likewise. Indeed Barclay is brilliant at giving us the light and shade in his characters, thus giving us cause to question the motives at work in these stories. The result is not simply a matter of hack, slash, and spell cast – rather it is a series of intelligent and very exhilarating adventures.

The novels could be described as being formulaic, but what a formula Barclay has created! Intrigue, action, excitement, humour – these novels have these things in heaps. Elfsorrow too, like the previous Raven novels, is unapologetically violent. I had lost track of the body count by page ten! It is also chock full of wonderful fantasy creations, some carried through and extended from the previous works, others – particularly Barclay's take on the elves, entirely original to this one.

In recommending this novel and the other books in the series, I leave you with a warning! Be sure not to become too attached to any of Barclay's characters. This is a brave writer, not afraid to "kill his darlings" as the saying goes. If you like your fantasy fast paced, tough and punchy, go and discover The Raven. You won't be disappointed.

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