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Book Review: Ravensoul By James Barclay

When an author kills off the majority of his lead characters after having written six books tracing their adventures you tend to accept that just maybe you won't be reading any more stories about them. Oh sure the author could write some sort of pre-quell which could tell of their early days together or how they first met, but no matter how well written those things are they can be strangely dissatisfying. It's like having grown up with a group of friends and shared many life experiences with them along the way to all of a sudden have them revert back to the way they were when you first met them. In your minds eye you can still see them as they are today, but what you "hear" and witness is them years ago, and they are virtually strangers.

Of course there are other ways an author can bring characters back from the dead if he or she so chooses especially when they inhabit the type of worlds that exist in fantasy literature. There's usually no shortage of magic or magic users capable of performing a resurrection or two. In fact so many characters do seem to pop back after having kicked the bucket that it has become something of a cliche. Even worse is that the majority of those stories are a disservice to the original books that featured the characters in question as they end up feeling like attempts to exploit the characters' popularity.

When James Barclay wrote Demonstorm he seemed to have brought the adventures of the mercenary group known as The Raven to an end. After two trilogies, The Chronicles Of The Raven and The Legend Of The Raven only two of the group of soldiers and warrior magicians remained alive after saving their world from the grips of a demon invasion. So when I learned that a seventh book, Ravensoul, distributed in Canada by McArthur & Company, was forthcoming, I was surprised. Yet, after having watched as the books featuring The Raven had grown increasingly complex, and seen how Barclay's ability to make the implausible possible had resulted in another magnificent Epic Fantasy series, The Ascendants Of Estorea (Cry Of The Newborn & Shout For The Dead), there was reason to hope that he could make bringing his people back from the dead work.
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It's been ten years since The Raven had successfully beaten off the invasion of their world by the denizens of the demon dimension, and under the leadership of Sol, The Unknown Warrior, who had once led the mercenary troupe into battle, the country of Balaia is finally starting to recover. While some things, like the destruction of the various colleges of magic and their attendant cities, and in particular one college's heart (the conduit of magical power for all who studied a specific college's methodology), will take longer to recover from than others, it's finally starting to look there will be a future that is based on more than just eking out an existence.

However, for the last while Sol has been plagued with nightmares of his former companions desperately reaching out to him for help. Although his wife puts it down to his having had to watch them all die while he and Denser, the magician who was the only other survivor, made their way back to their own dimension, when a re-animated corpse claiming to be possessed by the soul of his former brother in arms, Hirad Coldheart, shows up at his front door the dreams take on a new meaning. For it's not just Hirad who has returned, but other members of The Raven, even some who had died long before the battle with the demons, are walking around in other bodies, claiming that their dimension has been destroyed, and Sol's world faces the same threat.

Needless to say, despite the presence of forty or fifty re-animated corpses walking around the city of Xetesk, the strongest surviving college of magic, Sol and Denser take a little convincing that the threat is real. However when they lose contact with the Southern continent, the home of the elves, they begin to suspect there might be some truth to what these lost souls are saying. Yet how do you pack up a whole continent's, let alone a world's, population and move them to another dimension? In fact why should you? Hadn't Balaia and its people proven itself in conflict before and overcome almost impossible odds to fight off the demons? What could be worse than that?
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The elves know, as two thousand years ago they had fled their original dimension to travel to the one they all now occupy in an attempt to escape the destruction wrought by the Garonin. It's not that this race comes to conquer - they come to suck the very life force out of any dimension they enter in a bid to fuel themselves to fight the wars being fought in their own dimension. Fighting the Garonin is impossible as for every soldier cut down they are immediately able to transport 100 across dimensional space to take its place. Even worse, since they are harvesting the life force of the planet, once they reach Balaia they are focusing their attacks on the centres of magic - the college cities - where that essence is concentrated in each magical branch's heart. As the hearts die, so does the country's best means of defence, magic.

The Raven stories were always a cut above typical sword and sorcery stories in their sophistication as Barclay always managed to make them about more then just the plot. Somehow topical themes; the relationship between power and responsibility, no action exists in isolation, and the very delicate balance that must be maintained for any world to survive, were always an integral part of each plot without them ever being in your face. Even more impressive, was that no matter how incredible some plot twist might seem, within the context that he created for the world of his characters and their adventures, they always made sense and were never outlandish.

If you haven't read the previous six books featuring The Raven, the bald details of Ravensoul's plot that I've laid out for you might seem outrageous, but within the context of what he had previously written this book not only fits into the world, it feels like an even better conclusion to the series than the previous book. It's as if Barclay has gathered up all the various threads of the previous stories and woven them together to finish the picture he had begun drawing in the first book.

As a band of warriors The Raven were always greater than the sum of their parts, somehow always managing to win through in the end no matter how insurmountable the odds against them appeared. Yet what made them such an appealing group of individuals was their humanity as none of them were perfect and they were subject to the same fears and foibles as the rest of us. However, not even death could shake their faith in their belief that they would win through in the end, simply because they were The Raven, and The Raven always won through in the end.

In the hands of a lesser writer a book that relied on resurrecting the majority of its characters for the story to work could have come across like a crass attempt to cash in on earlier popularity. Instead James Barclay has written a story equal to, or better, than any of the ones previously featuring The Raven. However, no matter how good any of the individual novels in either The Chronicles or The Legend Of The Raven are, like the mercenary group itself they are greater than the sum of their parts. Reading one of the seven books might be an exhilarating experience, but it's only by reading all of them that you can truly appreciate Barclay's accomplishment with this series. Now, with the publication of Ravensoul the picture is truly complete, and we can see just what a masterpiece it is that he has created.

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