I think it might be helpful to start a review of Stacey McEwan’s debut novel Ledge with a description of the book’s premise, since the starkly minimalist setup which McEwan constructs for this story eventually proves to be one of the novel’s strongest features.
Ledge begins by introducing its central protagonist, a woman named Dawsyn who lives in a narrow village of houses nestled against the side of a near-vertical cliff. This community, which is known by the simple and self-descriptive name of “the Ledge,” is accessible only by beings known as Glacians—winged humanoids who forcibly brought the villagers’ distant ancestors to the Ledge generations ago. In the present day, the residents of the Ledge persist only due to a harsh bargain forced upon them by their winged captors. Every season the Glacians bring them crates of food and other basic supplies, while in exchange the residents of the Ledge must allow the Glacians to select several from their population to be carried away as human sacrifices.
The people taken by the Glacians are never seen or heard from ever again, and those who live on the Ledge assume these individuals are either killed in some unknown ritual, or eaten. Where the Glacians come from, or even why it is that the villagers’ distant ancestors were brought to this isolated location generations prior, is a mystery.
The novel’s main plot begins when Dawsyn, having over the years witnessed the death of almost every friend and family member she has ever known, finds herself selected at the next Glacian sacrifice. Brutally carried through the icy mists surrounding the Ledge by an army of winged soldiers, Dawsyn is brought to a nearby Glacian city whose residents live in unimaginable luxury. There, she is thrust into a macabre ritual by Vasteel, the sadistic Glacian king, who in turn reveals to her the reason for the Ledge’s existence. Using human souls to fuel a magical ritual producing an elixir of sorts called “iskra,” Vasteel regularly harvests the people of the Ledge as a resource, draining them of their identities and will to live so as to magically extend both his own life and the lives of those Glacians who have pledged loyalty to him.
Yet in an egotistical display of false generosity, Vasteel also gives all of his human sacrifices a choice. Either they can agree to have their souls drained from their bodies and transmuted into iskra, or they can accept a leering challenge that he offers them instead, and attempt the long trek through the wilderness of his kingdom of Glacia while his guards hunt them for sport. Anyone who manages to survive this challenge and reach the distant human-run nation of Therrsaw will be free, but anyone captured by Vasteel’s guards will be brought back to his castle and have their soul drained from their bodies anyway.
Naturally Dawsyn accepts Vasteel’s challenge, proving to be the first human in many years to do so. Immediately set loose on the snow-swept slopes of Glacia’s wilderness without any survival gear, Dawsyn is quickly rescued by none other than a low-ranking member of Vasteel’s court named Ryon. Belonging to a half-Glacian half-human minority in Glacia, Ryon wants to be free of Vasteel’s rule just as much as Dawsyn does, and for some time has been plotting his own journey to Therrsaw in secret. Now that Dawsyn has accepted Vasteel’s challenge, Ryon knows that the excitement raised by the king’s order that Dawsyn be hunted will provide him exactly the cover he has been waiting for, beneath which he can enact his own plan of escape. Moreover, since the longer Dawsyn goes undetected by Vasteel’s guards the more time Ryon himself will have to reach Glacia’s borders, he’s decided to personally take it upon himself to take Dawsyn with him, ensuring that Vasteel’s guards don’t find her.
There are many elements of this setup which could have proven intriguing if properly handled. Both Dawsyn and Ryon represent individuals who are forced to work together so as to ensure their mutual survival, even though their respective backgrounds have led them to view one another as enemies. Dawsyn for her part clearly sees Ryon with a natural fear and hostility, since not only has she been raised all her life to view Glacians as human-eating monsters, but also now finds herself in a situation where one such “monster” has effectively captured her. Likewise, despite his motive of ensuring that Dawsyn reaches Therrsaw unharmed, Ryon’s moment-to-moment interactions with her illuminate a cold arrogance and vested disregard for her personal agency—qualities which reveal him to be far less than the heroic figure he sees himself as. Over and over again, Ryon casually insults Dawsyn at almost every opportunity, gloatingly pointing out how quickly she will die if he decides to abandon her, while also ridiculing her the instant she questions his judgment.
Had McEwan taken the time to explore the power dynamics unfolding between her two protagonists, then Ledge’s early chapters might have developed into a fascinating story. Unfortunately, while all of these elements are quickly established early on, that is not ultimately the narrative that she has written. Rather than providing her characters with opportunities to reflect on their interactions, McEwan instead constructs a plot whose tension hinges on whether or not Dawsyn will learn to place complete trust in Ryon’s plan to smuggle them both to Therrsaw. Given the power imbalance already underlying Dawsyn and Ryon’s relationship, this results in a horrendously uncomfortable narrative in which it is Dawsyn’s distrust of Ryon that is regularly framed as an impediment to the story. From one scene to the next, it is Dawsyn’s unwillingness to follow Ryon’s orders without question that is shown to needlessly place the two in danger, and not Ryon’s arrogance. This framing is further exacerbated by the addition of a new subplot to the story—a slowly building romantic relationship between Dawsyn and Ryon. Yet given the coercive context in which it is presented, this is a story element that only comes across as abusive.
What I suspect McEwan intended with this novel was an archetypal love story about two characters from opposite sides of a long-standing conflict, both of whom are forced to work together in order to survive. The problem is that this is not the story that the first half of the novel provides. Because of the abusive dynamic between Dawsyn and Ryon, McEwan’s effort to introduce a romance between these two characters fails.
And all of this is a shame, because as substantial as the shortcomings of Ledge’s first half are, the second half almost feels like it came from an entirely different book—a story whose merits so far exceed the faults of what came before that I think they warrant a separate discussion in their own right.
Eventually, Dawsyn and Ryon reach the boarder of Vasteel’s kingdom of Glacia and finally arrive in Therrsaw. Here, they find a nation residing in a temperate climate, with Therrsaw’s residents enjoying near-constant food and safety. More importantly, however—and in what proves to be one of Ledge’s most fascinating story elements—Dawsyn discovers that, in addition to the luxuries she finds in Therrsaw, the people of this kingdom revere everyone who lives on the Ledge as something akin to cultural heroes. Having long ago engaged in a war with Glacia that they lost, Therrsaw’s citizens now memorialize those who were generations prior taken to the Ledge by Vasteel, constructing massive stone statues in their honor, and even conducting regular ceremonies mourning those who still suffer there. As the first human in Therrsaw’s history to have successfully escaped from the Ledge, Dawsyn likewise finds herself the subject of unexpected admiration and respect from this community.
It’s in this way that Ledge comes to represent an intriguingly creative work of socially minded fantasy. Despite finding nothing but kindness in Therrsaw, Dawsyn soon realizes that the awe afforded her by the people of this kingdom itself hides something more sinister. With the people of the Ledge transformed into abstract symbols rather than living human beings, the leaders of this nation can deploy them as a symbol of national unity readily twisted to whatever purpose the moment requires. Likewise, as the first human to escape the Ledge and successfully make the journey to Therrsaw unharmed, Dawsyn realizes that the leaders of this nation wish to use her to further cement their own power. Just as Vasteel sought to use Dawsyn’s soul to fuel his magic, so too do Therrsaw’s leaders intend to use Dawsyn as a tool of propaganda. As a result, Dawsyn ultimately finds herself vowing to return to the Ledge to mount a rebellion against Vasteel from within Glacia itself.
It’s also here that, unexpectedly, the love story between Dawsyn and Ryon begins to function as a meaningful addition to the narrative. In witnessing firsthand the awe and respect that Dawsyn is afforded by the people of Therrsaw, Ryon begins to regard Dawsyn with a level of humility that stands in contrast to his prior actions. The arrogance and abuse that Ryon had earlier directed Dawsyn’s way is unfortunately never addressed, and so I can’t in good conscience say that these chapters rectify the book’s earlier shortcomings. However, the second half of Ledge does seem to reflect the story that this book might have been had it been written differently.
Had the love story between Dawsyn and Ryon been withheld until this midway point, with the earlier half of the novel instead detailing Ryon’s gradual realization of his own arrogance as he and Dawsyn learn to rely on each other, then I think that McEwan would have written a genuinely creative work of epic fantasy whose unexpected social themes emerge from the narrative naturally on their own terms. Moreover, with both characters spending the first half of the novel coming to view each other as equals, the subsequent love story between Dawsyn and Ryon would have come to make sense as an expression of both characters’ respective journeys. The problem is that, while the narrative that McEwan has written in Ledge indeed eventually touches on some fascinating elements, these accomplishments are marred by the book’s earlier oversights.
Ledge is set up as the first novel in a trilogy, and I feel the need to say that I did reach the end of the book curious about what McEwan will do with this series in the future. At the same time, I worry this current book remains stretched uncomfortably between two incompatible stories. There is a genuinely fascinating work of political fantasy sitting at the center of Ledge’s plot, but it is torn between two conflicting narratives that would have been better off had they simply never met.