Raven, Swordsmistress of Chaos by Richard Kirk

Interestingly, Richard Kirk was actually a pseudonym for two writers – Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock. Both these writers have an impressive bibliography; Wells having a rich background in fantasy and westerns, and Holdstock with an even more impressive background in Celtic, Nordic and mythic fiction. It is not known which elements of the book either contributed to, and not being familiar with either of these writers their styles are indistinct while writing as Richard Kirk.

Raven is a classic Barbarian/Dark Fantasy novel in the same vein as Druss The Legend, Conan (or more on a more aesthetic level,) Red Sonja. The book starts with our other main protagonist – Spellbinder – who finds Raven fleeing a life of rape and torture as a slave, hunted by slavehounds across a barren wasteland. A giant black raven intervenes and fends off the slavehounds, and Spellbinder takes this a sign that she is of immense importance.

He trains her and then takes her on a pilgrimage to an ancient artefact believed to be a fallen God. It is here she hears her destiny spoken to her from the artefact, and it promises her vengeance against her raper if she quests for an artefact of great magical and spiritual importance. She accepts this destiny and Spellbinder leads her on a great adventure filled with pirates, beastmen, wizards, and sex.


Judging from the cover of this book I assumed it would be an overly-sexed adventure that read like a bad 70’s science fiction film. It was actually surprisingly well written, though one of the authors had a penchant for over using adjectives and in particular had an affinity for platinum (platinum armour and weapons and jewellery appear in almost every chapter). The (male) authors tried to create a female hero that was strong and independant; and this translated into a cheesy 70’s character who uses her sexuality and her ‘fragile female exterior’ as weapons of distraction and negotiation, and this often comes off as more of an exploitation of Raven instead of an empowerment. (On a sidenote, the best female leads in fantasy fiction, in my opinion, are those in Le guin’s EarthSea series and Goodkind’s Sword Of Truth series.)

What I also found surprising about this story, is that Raven took a backseat to the story. The true main character was Spellbinder, whilst Raven stands at his side or in the background. It’s ironic, that in trying to create an independent heroine, what they manufactured instead was a woman so objectified by the authors, that she functions little more as a plot device in her own story. All the major action revolves around Spellbinder, and in the possibly most exciting action sequence in the book (Spellbinder versus the monstrous leader of Beastmen in the jungle) it actually takes place off page, and what we read about is Raven nervously waiting whilst Spellbinder defeats the monster and recovers the artefact.

However, towards the end of the book Raven does start to develop her own gravitational pull and the story is drawn back towards her. The action focuses on her and she almost develops as a character. But then the book ends. I read this book with the expectation of it being a cheesy 70’s barbaric fantasy, and keeping these things in mind, it didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what I expected, perhaps pleasantly downplayed in some parts, and though the characters were a bit two-dimensional with little development, the world was nicely realized and was enjoyable to travel through. I would recommend this book to any fan of fantasy, not because it is great, but because it is not. Sometimes we need to read an enjoyable average novel to more thoroughly enjoy the more well written modern novels available.

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