Review: The Raven's Banquet by Clifford Beal

Brian G Turner

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The year is 1626, and Richard Treadwell is a young Englishman seeking his fortune, who thinks that the wars raging in Europe will gift him with rank and riches.

He is shortly to become very disappointed. And disillusioned. And be left fighting for his life.

He is also about to be visited by the ghosts of his not-to-distant past. Literally so.

Welcome to The Raven's Banquet, a new addition to the 'Flintlock Fantasy' subgenre of fiction.

The Raven's Banquet

The story opens in 1645, after Richard Treadwell's capture by Parliamentarian forces of Crowell's New Model Army, in the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby.

The account is a First Person narrative, as he seeks to shrive himself of the sins of 20 years ago, during the German campaign, while locked up and awaiting trial.

The German campaign provides the main focus for the story, as retold, and shows him signing up to fight for the King of Denmark against the Papist armies of Hapsburg Austria.

After a short series of sieges and battles, he takes shelter among a group of women upon a forested mountain, and the story reaches a supernatural finale.

This is a story which is neither historical fiction, fantasy, nor horror - yet succeeds in holding each of these parts very well.

The historical fiction aspect is fantastic - the use of voice and details makes this one of the most authentic I've come across. The text is easily readable, but rich and inflected enough to give a feeling of period, without causing confusion.

The author has made a painstaking effort to ensure this world is real and believable, and the degree of research and care really shows.

And despite that this is a book about brutality and blood, I never felt crushed by the grimness of it all. We see a dark side to war, but no point is ever laboured. This book is not long enough to allow that.

Additionally, any supernatural element can put me off from picking up a book - I am not a horror reader, and have no interest in blood splatter for the sake of entertainment.

Instead, what we have here is a character who communes with the dead. Or, more to the point, the freshly dead sometimes visit him in visions that Richard Treadwell feels are far too real.

There's more a sense of mouldy, open tombs - even the mythical - than gore about these scenes. And I was minded to think of the character Jack in "An American Werewolf in London". Just without the humour, or the line "I didn't mean to call you meatloaf, Jack!"

Frankly, this is a stunning book in many ways, not least in the telling. However, don't expect anything light-hearted - this is about tragedy, on so many levels, than deliverance.

The 'Flintlock Fantasy' library is growing fast, and I think this book easily stands among the best of them, not least Anne Lyle and Brian McClellan.

As ever, there are niggles - though not many. If anything, the worst criticism is that the character of Richard Treadwell is not developed enough, especially not his Protestant faith. However, Clifford Beal has written him as an unreliable narrator delivering his own account, so even that criticism is moot.

Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this story - the strong voice carried me in immediately, and would not let me go. I felt obliged to keep reading to see what happens next. Despite that I had to read the review arc on my PC, and there are 8 other partially read novels on my desk, including some old favourites.

The only really valid criticism is that this is a little short as a novel - I make the wordcount about 88k. However, the result is a story that is sharp and sweet* (*actually, somewhat bitter), and never gives itself an excuse to wander into tangential characters or events, or languish in the horrors of war too long.

If you're happy to read fantasy fiction with musketeers and cavaliers, as opposed to just knights and barbarians, and are not afraid to read a strong voice, then this is one definitely worth looking at.

Certainly I've added Gideon's Angel to my Gift List, and if the storytelling there is anything like in The Raven's Banquet, then it's fair to say Clifford Beal will remain on my current - and short - list of favourite authors.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00KAY77KW/?tag=brite-21
 
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Teresa Edgerton

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Sounds intriguing, if a little dark for me. I can take some grimness, when, as you say, it isn't belabored. And anything set in that period post-medieval and pre-twentieth century has an appeal for me.

Worth looking into, I think.
 

Brian G Turner

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I always enjoy reading excerpts from books on Amazon to make a decision:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00KAY77KW/?tag=brite-21

I gushed over his use of language in a previous thread:
http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/548227-clifford-beal.html

I'm not a good judge as to how grim and dark this story is - but it is a sharp and bitter tale.

His first book with Solaris was Gideon's Angel, which actually takes place after the events in The Raven's Banquet. I presume we see more conflict and a little more sweetness in that novel.
 

svalbard

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I am after downloading it on the strength of your review I Brian. Better be good...
 

Brian G Turner

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Did you enjoy it, svalbard, or struggle with it?

Simply curious, as I personally enjoyed it and put Gideon's Angel on my Gift List. :)
 

Vertigo

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First let me say a big thank you to Brian as I won this book in one of the Chron's 'competitions'. Not my normal style of book but I loved it!!!! So secondly here are my thoughts!

The Raven’s Banquet is part historical, set in the early 17th Century, and part supernatural, with the main character Richard Treadwell able to see ghosts and encountering some witchery. However the supernatural aspects are minor compared to the historical ones. Neither of these topics are really in my normal reading comfort zone –mainly science fiction and some fantasy – but of late I have been reading and enjoying historical works such as the Hornblower books, so maybe I am drifting that way in my old age or at least expanding my interests! Whichever, I certainly found this an excellent book and, to my surprise, one of very few recent books that have kept me turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning; I positively raced through it.

The Raven's Banquet is a prequel to the earlier Gideon’s Angel, which I have not read but will certainly be doing so. It tells the story of Richard Treadwell a younger son and devout Protestant who sets off to join the Protestant Danish army fighting the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, full of noble and highly romantic ideals and dreams of finding his fortune. One of the things I liked about this book is the way those romantic notions are steadily stripped away by the grim reality of 17th Century warfare. A reality consisting of 15,000 soldiers waiting for battle, exposed to conditions of appalling sanitation, forced to steal and murder for food and only a short step from that to outright looting. The fighting itself is revealed as a desperate melee where survival is more down to luck than skill; where a soldier is as likely to be stabbed by an unnoticed opponent as by the one he is actually fighting. This book leaves no possibility of viewing this kind of warfare with any romanticism.

The characters are well drawn though only a small handful in any detail. Their motivations are generally clear and believable, though occasionally, particularly towards the end, they did become a little less so. However despite his many character flaws Treadwell makes a good protagonist who I found it easy to empathise with. Whilst I’m no expert to say whether Beal’s writing matches the times; obviously language has changed a great deal since these times so it’s never going to be totally authentic and still be as readable as it certainly is. However Beal’s writing does conjure up the period in my imagination very successfully, whilst only really forcing me to look up the inevitable technical terms for the accoutrements of a horse soldier of the times. One word did surprise me; I would have assumed ‘booze’ to be a relatively modern word but a quick look up reveals: The first references to the word “booze” meaning “alcoholic drink” in English appear around the 14th century, though it was originally spelled “bouse”. The spelling, as it is today, didn’t appear until around the 17th century. So there you go!

My main complaint is what I felt was a weak and unsatisfying ending. However it is very possible that may have been simply due to the fact I have not read Gideon’s Angel which occurs after the events of this book but was written before it. I suspect that the beginning of that book will provide the real conclusion to this one!

All in all this was a very good book that I would strongly recommend and only that weak ending pulled it down from a 5 star rating. Clifford Beal is a relatively new author who certainly bears watching.
 

Ray McCarthy

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I've read it too. It's not in my normal range of reading styles, I thought the period seemed convincingly done, but I couldn't warm to Richard Treadwell, the main character.
 

Vertigo

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Not sure I would say I warmed to him; none of the characters are particularly likeable. But I don't have a big problem with that in a gritty book such as this. On the other hand I found I could empathise with most, though maybe not all, of his all too human decisions.
 

svalbard

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Did you enjoy it, svalbard, or struggle with it?

Simply curious, as I personally enjoyed it and put Gideon's Angel on my Gift List. :)
I thought it was excellent Brian. It had a great feel, the picture it delivered of The Thirty Years War was visceral. Whilst the characters, even Richard, had little to commend them, I did find myself invested them.

I have purchased Gideons Angel, but it will be later in the year before I get to it. That is one of the problems with the Kindle. It is quite easy to build up a massive backlog of books.
 
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