Dawnthief (Chronicles Of The Raven book 1) by James Barclay (book review).

July 10, 2015 | By | Reply More

‘Dawnthief’ is James Barclay’s debut fantasy novel, originally published in 1999 and the first of twelve novels to date in the ‘Chronicles Of The Raven’ series, ten of which he has based in and around the invented world of Balaia. I have previously reviewed here his three latest visits to this world in the ‘Elves’ trilogy, most recently in February 2014. Having done so, I thought it might be interesting to go back to the earlier books and see how they compare. I read them for the first time several years ago. Re-reading them has been a fascinating and enjoyable experience.


As the sub-title of the book makes clear, ‘Dawnthief’ is the first in a series of stories about the legendary team of honourable mercenaries known as ‘The Raven’. The novel starts with them defending a castle from attack and in Barclay’s trademark style, we are only on page six when one of our group of seven heroes, a warrior called Ras, is brutally slain. When I got to this point on my first reading of the book, I thought I’d misread the text. Surely the author wasn’t going to kill off one of his major characters so quickly?

The answer, of course, is that this is exactly what he does. It’s not a one-off neither. A consistent feature of Barclay’s storytelling across all his novels is a willingness to kill major characters on a regular basis. What is so brilliant about this, as far as I’m concerned, is that it means the reader is constantly on edge, wondering if the next big fight scene may be their favourite character’s last. For those of us whose experience of genre fiction, both on the page and screen, has led to the complacent assumption that major characters never die, Barclay’s books are an arresting but welcome antidote.

Getting back to the plot, The Raven realise that the attack on the castle was engineered purely to allow Denser, a mage from Xetesk, the least popular of the four colleges of magic in Balaia, to recover an important artefact from a parallel dimension, only accessible through a magical portal deep in the bowels of the castle. This artefact is an amulet which previously belonged to Septern, the mage universally acknowledged as the greatest ever, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances three hundred years earlier.

When The Raven catch up with Denser, they consider killing him in revenge for Ras’ death. That plan goes out the window when Denser explains why he was after Septern’s amulet. It turns out that their mortal enemies, the Wesmen, who live in the Western half of the continent, on the other side of the Blackthorne Mountains, are massing for war. This would be bad enough on its own, since the avaricious barons of Eastern Balaia have become complacent during the recent decades of peace and have made themselves even richer by cutting their own troop numbers. The real problem, though, is that the Wytch Lords, the Wesmen’s immortal and magically gifted masters, have escaped from the parallel dimension to which they were exiled after their side lost the last great war in Balaia, hundreds of years earlier, and have returned home. If the Wesmen have the support of the Wytch Lords’ dark magic when they cross the mountains and attack Eastern Balaia, the result will likely be genocide. Denser tells the Raven that, in the view of his college, their only hope lies in recovering Septern’s greatest and deadliest spell, Dawnthief, and using it to destroy the Wytch Lords before they and their army invade.

Reluctantly, the surviving members of The Raven agree to help Denser find all the various items that will enable him to cast Dawnthief. Can they keep him alive during a quest that gets more dangerous with every passing day? Even if they do, will he manage to unleash the spell before the Wytch Lords destroy Balaia?

Given that this is Barclay’s first published novel, I wasn’t surprised to find a few weak points in the book. Most were pretty minor plot queries but the one issue that stuck out for me was the lack of variety in the way that grief was portrayed. As I’ve already mentioned, a lot of people die during the novel. The response to such deaths from the bereaved is almost always the same. They burst into tears. That is, of course, one of the things that anyone faced by death will tend to do at one point or other. However, for most of ‘Dawnthief’, it seemed to be the only thing that anyone facing the loss of a loved one or a close friend did, whether they were a gruff old warrior or an innocent young woman. Given the high body count, this started to become a little repetitive after a while. It’s probably worth mentioning, therefore, that this is a weakness that Barclay has subsequently eliminated from his writing, as anyone who has read his ‘Elves’ trilogy will be able to attest.

Turning to the strengths of the writing, there are many. I’ve already referred to Barclay’s convention-defying habit of killing off major characters at regular intervals, which keeps the reader on the edge of their seat throughout. Of course, this trick only works if you actually care about the people in the book in the first place. Barclay has created a group of contrasting, rounded characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own aspirations and fears. As I got to know them, I became increasingly invested in each of the main characters and found myself urging them on both individually and as a group. Consequently, when one of them was badly injured or even killed, it created a real emotional impact. A further strength is Barclay’s ability to write action sequences that are detailed, dramatic and entirely convincing. When The Raven are in the middle of a fight, you can very easily slip into thinking that you’re right there with them, surrounded by the clash of steel on steel and the sight and smell of spurting blood.

‘Dawnthief’ retains the power to shock and engage its readers that got it so many positive reviews when it first came out sixteen years ago. I remember enjoying James Barclay’s debut novel immensely when I read it for the first time and my pleasure was just as great as I re-read it over the last few weeks. I’m now looking forward to getting started on the middle book of this first trilogy, ‘Noonshade’.

Patrick Mahon

July 2015

(pub: Gollancz. 464 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08275-5)

check out websites: www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.jamesbarclay.com

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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