Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
by: Anthony Ryan
Series: Raven's Shadow
Our regular readers will remember when about a month ago SP unexpectedly went dark thanks to real life rogues making off with a pair of laptops. So, in the midst of talking to insurance companies, rolling bank account numbers, and shopping around for replacement laptops (which was totally not fun), Kent and I stopped in at a local book store for some retail therapy. Now, I not only get a lot of reading material through NetGalley but I also work at a large public library. Bookstores are somewhat foreign places to me these days. So when I sat down to figure out what book was going to come home with me I said that a) it must be something I hadn’t read yet (Fool’s Assassin removed from options), b) it must be as much page weight for my money as possible (several standard length novels removed from options). After looking around for literally the biggest, fattest doorstopper released in the last six months I found an answer: Anthony Ryan’s Tower Lord. Which necessitated buying Blood Song, as I hadn’t read that yet. (Aw shucks!) After finishing up Blood Song, I knew I had made the right choice.
“The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.” Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order. Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.
Just so you know, if you ever have your house broken into, the book you choose to distract yourself from life and de-stress with will need to be one of two things (if not both): light and fluffy, or deeply engrossing. I’m not sure light and fluffy would have worked for me, but Blood Song was certainly engrossing in its grittiness. I think it’s a testament to how good this book really is that I fell in love with it in the middle of sleepless nights, stressed out days, and general turmoil.
Blood Song is Anthony Ryan’s debut novel (excepting the work he self-published on Smashwords), and there are veteran writers who would be proud to claim this book. Vaelin is our narrator and protagonist, and it was wonderful to find that Ryan, while making him a leader, hasn’t made an overpowered character that a power gamer would build for a D&D dungeon crawl. He’s not the best at several fighting styles of the Sixth Order, but what he does excel in is charisma and tactics. He understands his fighting brothers, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to use those individual pieces to create a single, impressive whole team. I loved this. We’re so used to, as readers of epic fantasy, either characters who are shining, glorious stars who cannot help but be noticeable because they have no equals, or characters so nasty and so evil that we cannot look away. While Vaelin does stand out amongst his peers, they all stand out as well in their own ways. In fact, Blood Song is an exceptional party book, even though the focus of the book stays squarely with Vaelin.
I also very much enjoyed Blood Song’s setting in a monastic order. However, do not think that this is an order where those who don’t fit are simply shown the door. Ryan, and Vaelin, make no bones that what the Sixth Order does to its novices is nothing short of abuse. (Note: if reading about children being in unnecessary life and death circumstances or liberal use of corporal punishment makes you squeamish, stay far far away from this book.) Novices either exceed and meet excruciatingly high standards, a few wash out, and a few die completing dangerous trials. The Sixth Order is a militant one, and all of their Faith is focused towards one end: being death dealing machines. Nothing more. If you’ve read a lot of books about fighters become knights and so forth… you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Sixth Order makes those knights look like pansies.
The monastic setting is, in some ways, Blood Song’s largest weakness. The book opens when Vaelin is ten and enters the Order. It ends when he’s in his early twenties, so the bulk of this book is about Vaelin’s training. It’s deeply focused inward at the Sixth Order and the building of Vaelin’s team of allies, and only moves outward to look at the Realm at large in the last portion of the book. Think of Blood Song as the building of a hero through the making of his first major legend. It means that the first section of the book is somewhat slow, and again, if you don’t like training books this might hit a sour note for you. However, Ryan is good enough at characterization and worldbuilding that I wasn’t tempted to walk away. I was learning things about Vaelin and his world slowly but surely, and that info was paced well enough that I was never bored.
At the end, this is a strong beginning to what promises to be a solid epic fantasy by an author who will likely go very far in the field. If you love Robin Hobb, Sherwood Smith’s Inda series, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, or Patrick Rothfuss, may I introduce you to a new friend, Anthony Ryan?