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Dawnthief Book One Chronicles of the Raven

James Barclay

Millennium / Victor Gollancz

UK Mass Market Paperback

ISBN 1-85798-860-4

527 Pages; £6.99

Date Reviewed: 05-01-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Fantasy, Horror

04-29-02, 05-02-02, 01-27-03, 03-26-03, 08-30-03

Big-screen style fantasy has always been big publishing business. Ever since Bantam Books made their stake on 'Lord of the Rings' back in the 1960's, new writers have been popping out book bricks like nobody's business. I've managed to pretty much ignore them all. But for some reason, browsing on the Internet, I got a good feeling about James Barclay's 'Dawnthief'. There's really nothing to distinguish it from the rest of the herd if you glance at the cover and plot summary. But if you actually read it, you'll find a prime bit of beach blanket bingo reading, with a flair for darkness that lifts it well above the median level of quality one could expect from boilerplate fantasy. 'Dawnthief' is not quite a revelation, not quite a revolution, but quite a respectable first novel.

'Dawnthief' has pretty much the expected cast -- Hirad Coldheart, the berserker barbarian, the Unknown Warrior, Ilkar the Elven mage, Styliann the sorcerer -- and even dragons to boot. Coldheart, Unknown and Ilkar form the core of The Raven, a mercenary fighting group past its prime, but intensely loyal to those in it. In short order, they're hired by the Xeteskan College of magic to help battle the rebirth of some very nasty magical creatures known as the Wytch Lords. But Xetesk has a reputation for blood sacrifice, something that doesn't sit easy with The Raven (don't forget those caps!). Erienne, a Dordovan mage, has had her twin boys kidnapped. Big plans are afoot Balaia. Powers are rising and politicians are scheming. But wait -- there's more!

Barclay writes with the abbreviated prose of a man who is writing thrillers, not Xeroxed Sword and Sorcery. His pace is relentless, and he's free of the ooey-gooey sentiment that plagues other works in this genre. Members of The Raven are not exempt from death. The violence is rather brutal. Torture is common, and most unpleasant. We're not talking about an 'I'll tell you my master plan while you escape from your bindings' experience. Don't think James Bond. Think Dirty Harry.

Barclay also puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to his dragons. They're vicious, awful monsters. They enjoy burning their prey. Moreover, they're sentient and have characters and politics, not just wings and fire. The scenes in which they communicate with humans are certainly amongst the best in the book. Given the violence and monster content, it might hold some interest for horror fans who think they might like fantasy.

Now, if any mention of standard pointy-eared elves gives you hives, then this is not the book for you. I might have counted myself amongst that group before reading this book, and come to think of it, I still do after reading this book. That said, I enjoyed 'Dawnthief' enough to read the obligatory sequel, and not just because the story is only half-finished at the conclusion of this novel. Barclay has a certain verve as a writer. It's definitely a je ne sais quoi quality, but quality it is. That's so rare in this genre, you want to set it aside and look at it, just to be certain it doesn't go away.