“War is always an adventure to those who’ve never seen it.”
Rarely have I seen a debut novel hyped as much as Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. Winner of numerous awards (including Amazon’s “Best SFF of 2013”), and receiving glowing reviews from nearly every corner, I’ll admit my expectations were sky high. The book couldn’t possibly be that good, could it?
Well, yes. It could.
Blood Song is the story of Vaelin al Sorna, first introduced as a young man, and already one of the most infamous men in the world. Forced to fight a duel he is expected to lose, he reveals his past to his jailer, a chronicler named Verniers. Vaelin does not tell Verniers his whole story, but he will tell you. Given to an elite group of fighters known as the “Sixth Order” at a young age, Vaelin quickly learns to fight, and to kill. His peers and he form an elite group, setting out to do the King’s bidding wherever it may take them.
First of all, the story is brilliant. The frame story has its own plot, one that is introduced, deepened, and resolved in a fraction of the time spent on Vaelin’s story. The first 250 pages of Blood Song are a school story, a darker, more brutal version of classics like Harry Potter. Think Joe Abercrombie writing The Name of the Wind, and you’ll be almost there. A perfect example of the tone can be found in this exchange, where a student expresses his worries to a master before a test:
“’I’m not sure I can swim that far, Master,’ he stammered, staring down at the dark waters of the river. ‘Then try to drown quietly,’ Sollis said, tipping him over the rail.”
Serving as a lengthy introduction to Vaelin and his friends, the first third of the story never falls into a slow patch, and the high stakes keep a degree of tension running throughout the book. Once Vaelin and his friends “graduate”, the story changes. Things move more slowly (though never too slow), and the focus shifts. Intrigue becomes a primary plot point, with the scheming nature of the King and his daughter’s manipulation taking a central role, as every subsequent action in the book occurs as a result of one of their machinations.
The world building is not elaborate, but it does hint at a deeply layered landscape beneath its blunt, bloody exterior. The prose is similarly lacking any frills, or bells or whistles, but it bears the mark of a master craftsman just the same. Ryan perfectly understands the tone of the book he is writing, and perfectly channels that into his writing. An interesting cross between Rothfuss and Abercrombie, the words flow in a way that is very difficult to do with such a blunt story. And, perhaps most importantly, the battle scenes in Blood Song are fantastic. The action is superb all throughout, Ryan makes sure the conflict is clear and understandable, while still being engaging and dramatic. When a book relies on action scenes as much as this one does, the skill the author has in writing them is paramount to the reader’s enjoyment of the novel. And Ryan absolutely nails it.
The characters may have been the weakest point of the novel, but that doesn’t mean they were poor by any means. Vaelin is an excellent main character, good enough that the reader roots for him, while still being flawed enough that the reader relates to him. He was, however, a bit overpowered. When someone is that good with a sword, just naturally, it begins to raise some questions (see Bilbo dueling a goblin in The Hobbit). An attempt was made to limit his abilities by making him worse at archery and horsemanship than some of his peers, but it never really seems to have much of an effect on the story. The supporting cast was well done, but as a rule I generally wish more had been done with them. Caenis was interesting, but I felt that there were aspects of his personality that were never really explored. He may have been the most interesting of Vaelin’s classmates, but he’s the one we earn the least about. I hope we see more of him in Tower Lord. Barkus and Dentos, though fine characters, were really rather flat and two-dimensional. I kept getting them confused, especially in the beginning, where Ryan dumps a lot of names on you (and Vaelin, to be sure), and I just never really figured out what made some of them different from each other. The story lacks a traditional villain (at least until the closing pages), but those that serve as temporary villains do so with aplomb; both the King and Princess are deliciously manipulative without being “evil”, or even “bad”. And then, of course, there’s my favorite member of the supporting cast: Nortah. A different take on the Ambrose Jakis or Draco Malfoy character, his character arc is the most dynamic in the story, including far more growth and character development than Ambrose and Draco combined.
All that said, the book was not flawless. I often felt as though the book was hinting towards certain occurrences or events that were either too subtle or just went over my head. There was a brief period directly after the end of schooling where the pacing dropped off a bit, but it was fixed almost immediately. And I didn’t entirely love the ending—it resolved well enough, but I still had many unanswered questions that I feel weren’t answered, and may never be answered, as Vaelin showed no sign of feeling motivated to seek out any more. The biggest problem I had was the Blood Song itself. It was never really explained, but instead of seeming mysterious and enigmatic, it came across as more of a Deus Ex Machina (though not quite that bad). It’s a real shame, because I thought that with a bit more explanation the magic system could be fantastic – perhaps we’ll learn more with Tower Lord.
Overall, a fantastic book that is well deserving of its reputation. A phenomenal story, great characters, and action scenes among the best I’ve ever read more than make up for the few, small flaws in the story. I will be eagerly awaiting the next books in the series!
Final Rating: 9/10