5/5 stars — epic hopepunk fantasy at its most appealing
You might not expect a setting with animals like gravemaws and meat squirrels to be home to an upbeat, optimistic narrative. Then again, maybe you’re familiar with Kevin Hearne’s talent for juxtaposing the absurd with the touching and having both come away stronger for the proximity. A Blight of Blackwings, the second installment in the Seven Kennings trilogy, is Hearne in fine form, an intricately layered tale with insightful commentary on the impact of violence and lots of lovable (and some not-so-lovable) characters. The prose and narrative style—not to mention the quick-witted dialogue—are an absolute joy to read, like coming home to your favorite armchair and finding it even more comfortable than you remembered.
As in A Plague of Giants, the story revolves around main character Dervan du Alöbar, with a handful of other point-of-view characters whose journeys are relayed through the bard Fintan. Some long fantasy novels lose me when they try to juggle a dozen storylines and keep all of them exciting and tied to the central plot, but this one had me hooked again at every POV change. Incidentally, this made the book really hard to put down. A few of these secondary characters were holdovers from the previous book—Abhinava Khose, relatably anxious plaguebringer, and Gondel Vedd, linguistic scholar and lover of mustard among them—but this book adds several more voices to the mix. My personal favorites were the grieving, conflicted firelord Olet Kanek and the hivemistress Hanima Bandury.
Characters tend to be my priority in any story, and these have an excellent playground in the rich and colorful world Hearne has created. A Blight of Blackwings reveals more of the setting, geographically speaking, and showcases novel uses of the magical kennings. The ‘cost of magic is years of your life’ concept isn’t unique, but this series commits to it in emotional stakes as well as physical, making it very effective.
From a more meta standpoint, the subplots involving revolution, poverty, and classism were timely, their framing inspirational rather than bleak. Quotes like this one about the entitlement of wealthy and privileged people really resonated with me: “Folks like that tell themselves a story where they worked really hard for what they were given, so that anyone who isn’t rolling in luxuries and benefiting from cronyism and nepotism simply isn’t working hard enough.” Another favorite was, “The assumption that manual laborers cannot lead rich intellectual lives is offensive.” I’d be doing the book a disservice to make it sound entirely serious, so I should mention it also includes gems like Dervan’s “All I want in the morning is a peaceful time for toast,” and, from the midst of the Nentian civil war, “Deploy the tactical moths.”
I appreciated that the ending of A Blight of Blackwings felt more conclusive and satisfying than the previous book’s cliffhanger. Plotlines are obviously left open for the last installment, but this one felt more self-contained as it wrapped up a couple of mysteries. My only quibble with the book is the use of “wheelchair-bound” for a disabled character, when mobility devices are less a restriction than a useful tool, in my experience.
I highly recommend A Blight of Blackwings to anybody who enjoyed the first book in the series! Further, readers of Tolkien, Sanderson, and Jordan—anybody who loves epic fantasy, really, and especially those looking for a ray of hope in a genre lately leaning into its grimdark side—should pick up A Plague of Giants and dive into this thoughtfully constructed world. I described this series to a friend as “like Lord of the Rings, but with actual female characters,” which is untrue only in that it oversimplifies the ways in which Hearne writes for diverse modern audiences.
Content warnings: gore, fantasy violence, spiders, snakes, insects
** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **