Saturday, July 7, 2018

Book Reviews: Blood Song

Blood Song
by Anthony Ryan
This older novel was the author's debut into a pretty crowded field and the first in a trilogy. I think it's unfortunate that so many publishers and authors shoehorn stories into a trilogy format when so many of them could be told in one stand alone book. However, Blood Song left me wanting more, which I suppose is all a reader can ask. The  story themes will be familiar to anyone who has read high fantasy; there's not too much that's new here. The book's enjoyment comes not from brand new ideas but in how the author weaves together some classic tropes and storylines.

The author sets the story in a world much like our own High Middle Ages. Countries that are fantastic versions of England, France, Wales, The Ottoman Empire, Songhai, and other Eurasian or West African nation states vie for economic and political primacy. Ryan uses a framing technique in which the person we believe to be the protagonist tells the story of his life to an enemy who will shortly it is believed, oversee his execution.

The protagonist is Vaelin Al Sorna, Sword of the Realm to King Janus of The United Realm, aka Darkblade, Young Hawk, and Hope Killer. Vaelin has been captured by his enemies in the Alpiran Empire and is going to be executed, or so everyone believes. Curious about the life of Vaelin and how he became one of the greatest warriors of the Sixth Order, the battle caste created to defend and expand the Faith, the Alpirian Imperial Chronicler decides to take down Vaelin's story. Vaelin's story starts when he is just ten years old and is abandoned by his father, the former Battle Lord to King Janus, at the gates of the Sixth Order castle. 

The Sixth Order uses a mixture of indoctrination, study, practice, and brutality to create the greatest warriors in the world. The Sixth Order members are paladins for the Faith. It is unusual for a firstborn noble child to be given to any of the Faith's Orders as it means he won't inherit.

The first third of the book is a coming of age story as Vaelin learns who his friends and rivals will be in the Sixth Order. As he grows to manhood he discovers that he has abilities which could be considered blasphemous by the Faith. King Janus has plans for Vaelin, not all of which are consistent with the strictures of behavior that the Sixth Order requires. King Janus is a practical man. But even an amoral king is not the worst of Vaelin's problems. More dangerous threats to all of the Orders and to Vaelin are emerging. 

The characters are realistic. We see many of them move from easily cowed young boys to teenagers full of spit and fire to grown men with hard decisions to make. There aren't as many women characters but the ones who exist definitely have their own interests and agendas. They're not just appendages to their male counterparts. I like how the author shows the cost of the training which people undertake. It costs blood, sweat and tears to be the best at what you do. And some people never get the skills they desire. I also appreciated how Vaelin learned that whether within the Order or out of it there are few people who perfectly embody moral ideals. It's hard being good. It can be hard to know what good is. This book was an investment in time at a little over 600 pages. But it's well paced and enjoyable reading. If you're looking for fantasy that's more grounded without being utterly dark and excessively violent then this could be the story for you. 
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