Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan

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This is a book I had been anticipating for a while now, or, more specifically, ever since I turned the last page of Anthony Ryan’s debut novel, Blood Song. When it finally came out, I was beyond thrilled… until I read the reviews. Despite the fact the reaction was mostly positive, it also didn’t make the book out to be anything to get excited about – good, but a little disappointing. So I held off on purchasing it, thinking that it would make more sense to let the price drop a little before finally grabbing a copy. But my resolve broke, and I downloaded it onto my kindle before a week-long vacation, thinking I would have plenty of time to read. I was right and I was right.

I tore through this book at a rate that surprised even me. Yes, it’s a very different book from Blood Song. And though I would also say that it’s not as good, it’s certainly an excellent book in its own way. Blood Song benefitted from the emphasis placed on Vaelin, the reader’s ability to live with him through everything, the drive and spot-on pacing of the plot, and the relatively small-scale of the story (at least in terms of characters), keeping the story intense and focused. Tower Lord has none of these virtues. Instead, this book takes place from the POV of four separate characters, introduces a far greater scope to the world, and in many places feels a bit drawn out. But the main advantage this book has over Blood Song is the improved craft of Ryan’s writing. There’s a far greater maturity and cleanness present than there was in Blood Song… which may contribute somewhat to the general change in tone between books.

Anthony Ryan has some of the most interesting prose I can remember reading. And this is because it’s beautiful, but not in any way I can clearly discern. I’m fond of using the word ‘functional’ to describe prose that does well to carry the plot, but little else. And it feels like that, but there’s an extra element to it. A sort of poetic feel, an elegance of phrase. It’s not flowery or bombastic, as can be the case with other books I’ve loved (all three of The Name of the Wind, The Night Circus, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated… spring to mind), but simple, and refined. It’s a pleasure to read, as it pulls you along and keeps you intrigued, while still not distracting and certainly not detracting from the martial themes of the novel.

One of Ryan’s most controversial choices even before this novel was released was the switch from the focused, distilled, single viewpoint of Vaelin al Sorna to a series of four rotating perspectives. In addition to Vaelin, we have two returning characters from Blood Song – Lyrna and Frentis – and one new one – Reva. For the most part, I was very pleased with the way this turned out, and am certainly glad that Ryan chose not to tell this story from solely Vaelin’s POV. If this is the story he had in his head, and it makes sense as the logical continuation to Blood Song, it would have been a disaster should it have been written solely from the one perspective. Though I was initially worried about Reva (her early chapters are not compelling), I thought that she blossomed brilliantly into perhaps my favorite character. Lyrna’s story takes some very interesting and surprising turns, and though I’m still undecided about her as a character, she is still without a doubt a dynamic and thrilling point of view. Frentis is notable primarily for the uneven nature of his story, but it is worth noting that the way he acts for approximately the first half of the book is not at all how you would expect him to act (and yes, there’s a reason for this). And as for Vaelin, well, Vaelin is just as wonderful a character, but…

His plotline was really poor. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan does a good job wringing out every bit of cleverness and entertainment he can out of it, but at the end of the day, it just does not work. His actions pretty much include: Go north. Go south. Swing sword for two pages. Done! This seems a real shame, because Vaelin is such a multi-faceted and interesting character, but he really does very little throughout the entire story. In contrast with this is Reva, whose story is often the driving force behind the story – it is her location that provides the primary battleground for the entre novel. After her first couple chapters, I would argue that this plotline is the most consistently entertaining and compelling. Lyrna and Frentis’ stories exist somewhere in the middle: more inconsistent plots that range from thrilling to mundane. Frentis’ story in particular is guilty of this, while Lyrna’s hovers more constantly around the ‘fun’ mark, rarely rising any further.

The strange thing is that though all these plot lines have their own distinct issues, they actually work exceedingly well with each other. The rotation works well in this case, and I realized that there were few, if any cases, when I was disappointed with the POV coming up next. The pacing is not as fine-tuned as it was in Blood Song, but still more than good enough to keep me turning pages, even when I really should have been doing other things.

Despite the immense entertainment I got from this book, there are certainly numerous flaws to be discussed. I’ve mentioned the failures of some of the plotlines to provide reliable entertainment, and I also think some of the secondary characters are highly hit-and-miss. Dahrena provides a notable hit, while I found Iltis to be a clear miss, but I can see others disagreeing with me. As for the return of the brothers, I found Nortah to still be an excellent character, while I profoundly disliked the new Caenis – disappointing, as he was one of my favorite characters from Blood Song. I also think that Ryan was a bit too impressed with the world he had created. Though it surprised me with its depth and the level of detail Ryan had ingrained in it, I also thought that certain sections (especially some of Frentis’ earlier ones) felt very much like Ryan trying to show off his newfound skills. Another, rather strange complaint that I had was the sheer number of typos and other typographical errors found in the text. Describing a man as lying “prostate” (instead of prostrate) particularly sticks in my mind, as does the failure to use commas correctly. There were so many instances when the rules of grammar (or even just common sense) dictate that there should be a comma, and yet there was none. This grew to be more than a slight annoyance after a little while, but it was a small complaint in an otherwise excellent tale.
But nothing can compare with the absolute devastation I felt after reading the final scene. Not the last chapter, not the last section. The final scene… all four paragraphs of it. It was clumsy, poorly-written, unclear, confusing, and, worst of all, wholly unnecessary. It ultimately left me with an incredibly sour taste in my mouth concerning this book, despite the immense enjoyment and pleasure I derived from reading it.

Overall, this is a very strong book. Very different from Blood Song, and perhaps not as good, but it does an excellent job of continuing the story of the Unified Realm, as well as expanding the scope and breadth of the novel. But perhaps most encouragingly, it truly shows how quickly Ryan has refined and improved his writing since his last publication. And if that’s not something to celebrate, then I don’t know what is.

Final rating: 8/10

 

 

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Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

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“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