BORN FOR BATTLE, BRED FOR WAR
The self-published phenomenon that went mainstream is a welcome addition to the ranks of essential epic fantasy tales.
(Raven’s Shadow Trilogy, Book 1)
Genre: High Fantasy
Format: Paperback, 768 Pages
Date: 20th February 2014 (First Published 2010)
In recent years there have been a number of notable examples of self-published books which have garnered considerable critical praise and admirable sales, turning their authors into “overnight” sensations. This success, for some, has led to traditional publishing deals, helping their books to reach a larger prospective audience of readers. Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking are probably the best known beneficiaries of the now more viable self-publishing market. But you can also include the name of British fantasy author, Anthony Ryan, to the growing list.
It’s probably not an exaggeration to describe Ryan’s début novel, Blood Song, as a phenomenon. The hype and acclaim it managed to attain long before its traditional publication would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But while the internet and digital distribution has been instrumental in the success of the first instalment of his Raven’s Shadow Trilogy, it is worth noting that Ryan did in fact write a very engaging fantasy novel.
Readers with previous awareness of the hype and praise that followed the initial self-publication of the novel will no doubt have frequently heard Blood Song being likened to The Name Of The Wind. There are certainly some surface similarities with Patrick Rothfuss’ highly regarded novel, at least in terms of the narrative structure of the book. The story is told extensively through the use of flashbacks told in the third person, occasionally interspersed with the written accounts of a historian narrated in the first person. But Blood Song is a markedly darker tale; a more apt comparison perhaps would be with the fabulous first ten chapters of The Left Hand Of God. Much of Ryan’s narrative often brings to mind Paul Hoffman’s novel, though thankfully, while the aforementioned title went completely off the rails after the tenth chapter, Ryan manages to maintain the focus and direction of his tale from beginning to end. One could even go as far as to say that Blood Song is the book The Left Hand Of God could and should have been.
Moving away from comparisons with other fantasy novels, it’s worth pondering on why exactly has Ryan’s début been received so enthusiastically by fantasy readers and critics alike. Given the level of hype surrounding the book, one could be forgiven for assuming that Blood Song must be a once in a lifetime masterpiece that not only reinvigorates but reinvents the high fantasy genre. Any prospective reader thinking along those lines would be well advised to temper their expectations. Blood Song is a rather conventional tale that utilises some well worn fantasy plot devices. If you are well read in Epic Fantasy literature you’ve likely encountered numerous child protagonists who are destined to grow up to fulfil prophecies; or lands imperilled by impending dark forces; or the scheming shenanigans of kings.
With that said, the paucity of originality should not be construed as inherently a negative. Ryan’s ideas may not be new but he makes very good use of them. His writing makes for compelling reading, allowing the narrative to progress in a swift and engaging manner. There are certainly no grounds for complaint about boredom, slow pacing or needless dwelling on superfluous diversions. But this is a book with little in the way of genuine surprises, as the plot, in its generalities, progresses in a markedly predictable fashion.
Yet it is in the details of these familiar fantasy elements where Blood Song really excels. Ryan has diligently constructed a convincing and compelling world within which to tell the story. The principal setting, known as the Unified Realm, is a land comprised of four distinct regions once riven by religious conflict that have now been subdued and united as one entity, with one overall ruler. An atheistic religion simply called The Faith has become the dominant belief system, and its primacy is maintained by an institution known as The Order. The members of The Order are trained from childhood to be, among other things, lethal and fanatical warriors charged with ensuring the continuation of the political status quo; but more importantly to suppress belief in all deities, and eliminate heretics along with their heresies.
Ryan’s world building, for the most part, is well thought out which makes it that much easier to become immersed into the story. The history and backstory of various places and people are important and necessary constituents of the unfolding tale. So the time that was expended on creating the backdrop for Blood Song was time well spent. But more crucially than that, Ryan has ensured that the way in which he imparts those details about the geography, history, theology and culture he has devised, not to mention the backstories of his characters, never strays into information dumping territory or clumsy exposition.
Though the story has no glaring flaws, the one area where some people may seek to direct criticism is in the characterisation of the book’s protagonist, Vaelin Al Sorna. This is not to suggest that Vaelin is a poorly written character; far from it. But it is entirely possible that some readers will deem him to be almost too perfect. Not in the sense of virtuousness, as Vaelin is more anti-hero than hero, but as a character who is perhaps too adept at everything he says or does, while seemingly being incapable of genuine failure. Admittedly, it is notable that there is never the sense that Vaelin will find himself in a situation he cannot get himself out of, or come to any real harm. But this is probably to be expected of most protagonists in epic fantasy yarns, so most readers should have no difficulty with this character.
When Ryan initially introduces Vaelin as an adult character, he is a reviled prisoner of the Alpiran Empire: The notorious servant of The Faith; most feared warrior of The Order; a man who will forever be known as Hope Killer, having slain the beloved heir apparent of the Alpiran Empire during an ill-fated overseas invasion of the empire that led to his captivity. Though a condemned man, Vaelin’s five years as prisoner is about to come to an end. He is to be transported to the Meldenean Islands where his life is to be traded to secure the release of a captured Alpiran princess. Travelling with him is a renowned Alpiran historian who hopes to document, in Vaelin’s own words, the full account of his life which eventually culminated in the disastrous invasion campaign to annex the north coastal region of the Alpiran Empire on behalf of the King of the Unified Realm, while bringing The Faith to the unfaithful.
And so it is, through the use of flashbacks that Ryan tells the story of how Vaelin as a young child is “abandoned” at the gates of The Sixth Order of The Faith by his father. Where over the course of years he would develop and grow to be an iconic figure within The Order. A man with hidden, dark preternatural abilities that would have him marked as an unfaithful heretic; a man at the centre of several portentous prophecies; but perhaps most dangerously of all, a man compelled to be a tool for the machinations of a king, and his enigmatic daughter.
So, should you believe the hype about Blood Song? Maybe yes; maybe no. What is certain, however, is that book one of Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow Trilogy is a very engaging and entertaining fantasy novel, albeit not a groundbreaking one by any means. It is a fast moving, well plotted adventure featuring a number of compelling characters in addition to a memorable protagonist. Any fantasy reader who adds Blood Song to their reading list will not likely regret it. Now, bring on the sequels.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.