The success of Anthony Ryan’s novel Blood Song has allowed him to quit his day job and devote himself to writing full time. Who is Anthony Ryan, you ask? You might be surprised to learn that his debut novel Blood Song had over 650 reviews on Amazon with an average rating of 5 at the time I began writing this review. By way of comparison, the entire list of Speculative Fiction Junkie’s Top 5 Reads of 2012 has a combined total of 27 reviews on Amazon. I almost never judge a book by its Amazon reviews and I mention them here only to demonstrate the scale of this book’s popularity. What would you say if I told you that this book won’t even be printed in physical form until July and that it currently exists only in electronic format? I haven’t read or reviewed as much pure fantasy in recent years, but the pre-publication popularity of Blood Song was just too intriguing for me to pass it up.
Blood Song tells the story of Vaelin Al Sorna who as a young boy is left by his father to be raised by the Sixth Order, one of a handful of orders dedicated to preserving the Faith. Each order performs a different primary function in service to the Faith and the Sixth’s is combat. The early part of the book focuses on the training and trials of young Vaelin and his ever closer group of companions as they learn fighting, survival, and other skills. As the book progresses, Vaelin matures quickly and distinguishes himself as a leader. At the same time, he increasingly finds himself entangled in the complex interplay of the Faith and the secular power of the King. He eventually is forced to make a number of difficult decisions that lead to war and to his eventual capture. As the novel opens he is relating his tale to a chronicler while on board a ship that is taking him to fight a duel at the insistence of his captors.
Blood Song thus combines a typical fantasy story with a coming of age tale in much the same manner as The Name of the Wind does. They are also structurally similar in that they both proceed by having the protagonist relate his story to a chronicler. Despite these superficial similarities, though, Blood Song is not even in the same league as The Name of the Wind.
There are a number of problems with the book. The first is that it does an inadequate job of convincing the reader that the children we meet at the beginning of the novel are the same individuals as the adults they have ostensibly become by its end. An author cannot expect a reader to believe in a character’s transformation simply because the author says the character has been transformed; the author must demonstrate and convince us of the character’s transformation and this book flat out fails on that front.
A second issue that detracts immensely from the story is that it fails in a number of ways to convince the reader of the reality and internal consistency of the world in which it unfolds. The most glaring example of this is the way that no matter how big this world is supposed to be, everyone keeps running into one another everywhere. This is a frequently encountered red flag for lesser quality fantasy fiction and it is disappointing to see it here. Furthermore, travels over great distances and pivotal events like battles are often barely described and instead we join the action after they’ve already concluded. This gives the world a small and unreal feeling and constitutes a near total failure of worldbuilding.
Third, while a number of morally and ethically complex dilemmas are hinted at and portrayed at a superficial level, they are so wholly unbelievable that the treatment of these issues lacks basic depth and credibility. For example, at one point Vaelin realizes that one of his slain opponents was blackmailed into fighting him by threats made against his family. He is so incensed by this that he takes his beef straight to the King (who he has never met before) and demands that the man’s family be taken care of. In exchange, the King extracts his agreement to essentially do the King’s bidding in the future. There is nothing in the entirety of the book that precedes this sequence of events to convince the reader that Vaelin would be so incensed by this situation, much less that he would essentially compromise his entire future to see that a couple of people are treated well. Thus, from its very inception the dilemma of his competing loyalties (to his order on the one hand and to the King on the other) is unconvincing and the reader can’t help but feel that it is a false dilemma. Add to these issues the fact that the novel is at times hokey, overlong, and written in prose that is little more than utilitarian and the book just doesn’t live up to the hype. There is no other way to say it.
Despite the harshness of the foregoing, the news isn’t all bad because if one looks past the many problems with this book, the underlying story itself is a promising and interesting one, and the book even works well in places. In the future, if Mr. Ryan can simply improve in his execution he has some real potential as a fantasy author.
The True First
Blood Song will be published on July 2, 2013 in the U.S. and U.K. by Ace. The book is already available in electronic format.
[This review was not based on a review copy]