Nightchild (Chronicles Of The Raven book 3) by James Barclay (book review)

March 25, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘Nightchild’ is the final book in James Barclay’s debut ‘Chronicles Of The Raven’ trilogy, with which he blazed a trail through the UK’s epic fantasy scene between 1999 and 2001. I reviewed the first two novels in the series, ‘Dawnthief’ and ‘Noonshade’, for SFCrowsnest a few months ago. Does ‘Nightchild’ provide a suitably dramatic ending to the trilogy?


The story opens some five years after the conclusion of ‘Noonshade’. The legendary group of mercenaries known as The Raven have disbanded and gone their separate ways. Trouble, though, has a habit of finding them no matter how much they seek domestic bliss. This time it is The Raven’s husband and wife team, mages Erienne and Denser, who get into hot water over the training of their precocious five year-old daughter, Lyanna. While magic in Balaia has been split into four competing flavours, each championed by a different College, for over three hundred years, Lyanna may be the first example in human memory of a child with the potential to master the magic of all four colleges. Unfortunately, she cannot yet control her powers and they are starting to manifest across Balaia in the form of extreme weather events, including flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis. Some see Lyanna’s potential as a grave threat to the existing magical order and will stop at nothing to prevent Lyanna from reaching her potential. Others simply want to stop the freak weather she’s causing before it tears Balaia apart. Either way, she’s in danger. As a result, The Raven take up arms once more, in defence both of their own flesh and blood and of the future of magic in Balaia and beyond.

One of the aspects of the story I found most interesting was the level of conflict and tension found between the members of The Raven. This is the most successful team of mercenaries that has ever been found in Balaia and, as they never tired of telling people in the first two books, that success and longevity was down to a combination of excellent fighting skills and a unanimity of purpose, so that they fought as a unit rather than as a set of individuals. However, The Raven retired shortly after the end of ‘Noonshade’ and they haven’t lived or fought together for over five years. When they are reunited for this new mission, that unanimity has gone. They’re older, out of shape and unhappy with each other. Hirad, the impetuous barbarian, is angry at Denser for failing to find a way to send the Kaan dragons, who were the saviours of Balaia in ‘Noonshade’, back to their home dimension. Elven mage Ilkar gets angry with The Raven’s undisputed leader, The Unknown, and with Hirad when they admit that they’re finding it difficult to believe that a five year-old girl can be responsible for earthquakes that have killed hundreds of people, no matter how magical her parents may be. Denser is angry with everyone, most of all himself, for not being able to save his daughter immediately. Barclay lets these tensions play out across the book, coming to a head in a couple of incidents that make you wonder if The Raven is about to collapse in on itself. This provides a level of instability to the heroic group that keeps the reader guessing from page to page and chapter to chapter, stripped of any of the usual certainties over who to cheer for.

In a similar way, Barclay refuses to allow the reader to relax amongst familiar moral certainties. Saving a five year-old girl from being murdered is clearly the right thing to do, isn’t it? Yet even Denser, Lyanna’s own father, has to wonder about this when he finds the body of a five year-old boy in the wreckage of a farmhouse they pass and realises that the young lad’s death is the result of an earthquake caused by Lyanna’s runaway powers. Unless her abilities can be brought under control rapidly, many more children are going to die in natural disasters like this. How many innocent deaths is his daughter’s life worth? Elsewhere in the book, we meet decent mages from the supposedly ‘evil’ colleges and scumbags from the more honourable ones, as well as supposedly righteous leaders who will do whatever is necessary behind the scenes to gather more power to themselves. As I was reading, I found myself constantly having to reassess who I should trust or distrust.

As in the previous books, Barclay isn’t afraid of killing or injuring major characters, so when a fight scene arrives, as they do aplenty in ‘Nightchild’, you can never be sure who will still be alive at the end of it. This level of uncertainty really adds to the effectiveness of the novel.

As in the previous two books, I also enjoyed Barclay’s ability to bring a diverse cast of characters to life, providing each of the mages, soldiers, elves, dragons, wolves, noblemen, peasants and Protectors we encounter, just as much as the individual members of The Raven themselves, with distinct identities, mannerisms and speech patterns. I never found myself in any doubt about which characters were occupying the stage at any particular time. Barclay’s Balaia was already a fully realised world but it gains even further depth and complexity in ‘Nightchild’.

If I had to make any criticism of the book, it would concern Erienne and Denser’s constant mood swings. Although it’s perfectly understandable that most parents of a young child threatened with death would find it hard to respond rationally, Erienne and Denser aren’t ‘most parents’. After the extraordinarily heroic things they’ve done in the previous two books, their continual lack of emotional self-control throughout ‘Nightchild’ starts to get a little wearing after a while.

‘Nightchild’ tells a tale that initially seems like a total departure from the subject matter of the earlier books. However, as soon as the members of The Raven are reunited, we’re back in familiar and very welcome territory. James Barclay is a natural storyteller and this third visit to the world of Balaia provides a hugely thrilling conclusion to his first trilogy. It’s just as well I’ve finished it though, as he apparently has a new book, called ‘Heart Of Granite’, out in August. I can’t wait.

Patrick Mahon

March 2016

(pub: Gollancz, 2008. 466 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08264-7)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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