Richard Treadwell is a young man who dreams of glory and honour on the battlefield—and the plunder and riches that would follow. Newly arrived in Hamburg to seek his fortune as a mercenary in the Danish army, he joins the vast war in northern Germany between the Catholic Hapsburg empire and the Protestant princes of the north. But he has also brought with him an old secret—and with it the seeds of his own destruction.
A young gypsy woman foretells that Richard cannot outrun his fate, and then he is swept headlong into the terrible war. The bloodshed he witnesses among the Danes strips him of conscience and hardens his heart, as the opposing armies close for the battle to decide the future of the kingdom—and maybe his own soul. But even as Treadwell steels himself for the final contest against the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, an unseen enemy stalks him within his own camp…
The hero of Gideon’s Angel returns to tell how his journey into the supernatural began.
Clifford Beal’s Gideon’s Angel impressed me very much last year and when the author told me a prequel was in the works I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Raven’s Banquet is set 26 years before Gideon’s Angel and is told in memoir form by Richard Treadwell in 1635, so nine years after the main events related in the book and running up to the earliest events recounted in Gideon’s Angel. While the narrative as such stands alone quite well, its ending clearly makes it a prequel and the 1635 arc definitely isn’t resolved. To find out what happened the reader will have to seek out the next book.
What then is the value of this prequel? First of all, it allows Beal to delve deeper into Treadwell’s history and develop his character further. The reader is introduced to a younger, more idealistic Richard Treadwell. Not always as sympathetic as he is in Gideon’s Angel, however, as Treadwell is very much a son of privilege and one that feels he’s been less well-treated by his family than he ought to have been. His motivation for joining the Danish army is also rather surprising. Of course there is the young man’s dream of glory and riches to be gained, but Treadwell also seems genuinely devout and willing to die to save the Protestant people of Germany from the clutches of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. This motivation isn’t just surprising given the Treadwell we know, but it is also hard to fathom for someone like me, who’s largely agnostic. Yet this kind of militant devotion is of all ages, just consider the jihadis in the Middle East or some of the more militant fundamentalist Christian groups in the US.
Second, the prequel allows Beal to introduce more information on Treadwell’s gift. His ability to see the dead is examined in more depth, including the fact that he was told to never ever reveal what he saw for fear of being denounced. We also learn that his ability makes him prone to haunting, something that serves to drive the plot forward in an interesting way, without leading him by the nose. The third element that makes this prequel a good addition to the history of Richard Treadwell, is the fact that we learn more about the mysterious Anya, a Roma woman who aids Treadwell and provides him protection from the supernatural. I liked learning more about his connection to Anya and how they met, but it was also Anya who was at the heart of the thing that bothered me most about the book. Treadwell, in keeping with the time the book is set in, refers to Anya and her folk as gypsies. While historically completely accurate and a quick search of the OED online doesn’t provide any other contemporaneous term, its use made me wince, since its now widely considered a racial slur. Beal works hard to incorporate era-appropriate language and language use, succeeding at this well. The language feels authentic, even if the subject matter isn’t, though even that is debatable as in Treadwell’s time people did truly believe in witches.
Even though her being called a gypsy made me wince, I really did love Anya. She a person all her own, living her life on her own terms and appearing and disappearing at will in Treadwell’s life. Another group of women that choose to live life on their own terms are the women who save Treadwell and his comrades after the battle at Lütter. This band of women living on the Kroeteberg are women widowed by war, who have chosen to fend for themselves in the woods making charcoal, leaving their children behind with relatives. Chief among them are the Oma, the German (and Dutch) word for grandmother, who is the camp’s leader and priestess, and Rosemunde, her second-in-command. Rosemunde is such a decisive figure and her ultimate choice to free Richard was stunningly written and her courage hit me hard. Rosemunde lives on her own terms and not on those of any man’s. Anya, Rosemunde, and the other Kroeteberg women are exemplars of women ostracised and worse, because of not submitting to male dominance. Again something that is still relevant today.
Other characters worth mentioning are the bluff and hearty Balthazar, who is hard as nails yet at the same time is kind, Richard’s brother William, who we see in the framing timeline set in 1635, and the creepy and dangerous Christoph. In truth, none of the men in Treadwell’s squad are men you’d like to meet in a dark alley, but Balthazar seems capable of kindness as does the converted papist Andreas. Christoph, however, is something else and he deserved everything he got. The growth in the relationship between Richard and William was lovely, yet it still feels as if there are some pieces of their story missing; perhaps these will be added in a later story.
Raven’s Banquet is a wonderfully captivating story, yet it should be read in conjunction with or after Gideon’s Angel. That way you’ll get all the nuances, plus the cliffhanger ending is softened by either already knowing what happens or being able to find out immediately. Beal’s second Treadwell novel is a truly enjoyable read and I hope we’ll meet Treadwell again as between his leaving Lütter and his being taken in 1635, there’s still quite a gap of adventures to be filled.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.