After having my antipathy to the fantasy genre comprehensively overturned by falling in love with the Game of Thrones TV programme, I was left with a quandary regarding a follow-up reading list that would build on this beachhead. Fantasy literature is such a huge field and also so very nuanced in its distinctions that it’s hard to know where to begin that wouldn’t lead me right back into the path of the sub-Tolkien tales of wizards, mages, elves and goblins that leave me cold. My first attempt was Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, which despite some impeccable writing left me somewhat cold with its lack of narrative progress in a first volume that felt like an extended prologue to the main event. After that, I followed the allure of the political machinations in George RR Martin’s work and ended up taking a sideways step into the unlikely embrace of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which was utterly brilliant but very much historial faction far from the fields of fantasy.
At some point my casting around for something properly fantastic in fantasy alighted on Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, originally self-published as an e-book but last year picked up by mainstream publishing house Orbit for a full international release in book stores as well. It’s the first volume in a proposed series (as appears mandatory for all books in the genre), and relates the tale of a young boy named Vaelin who is handed over by his distant father to a harsh order of religious warriors whose mission is to defend the Realm and to uphold the state religion called simply the Faith.
What follows is probably very familiar to those who know their fantasy genre inside and out; even though this is a largely new neighbourhood for me, it felt very much as though it was made up of some very recognisable building blocks for this type of book. There is a Harry Potter-esque start to things with the book following Vaelin’s training year-on-year, making friends and facing dangers which seem disproportionately aimed directly at him especially at the potentially lethal end-of-year examinations, sequences which have something of the feel of The Hunger Games to them. But just when you think this is going to be a fairly predictable Young Adult type of tale, the pace picks up and before you know it Vaelin is out of training and into the thick of huge events and battles clearly destined to rewrite the history books, his star rising in proportion to his notoriety. Some 20 years passes before the end of the book, and it has been one hell of a ride.
The book’s structure is actually very clever: the early YA section makes it very easy to sink into the world that Ryan is creating without overloading us with too many characters in one go, or too much about the world in which the events are set. They accrue gradually and naturally as the hero makes his way further out into the world, giving the end construction an impressive credibility and realism to it that I as a reader completely bought into. The characters are similarly convincing: from the brothers with whom Vaelin trains with and later fights alongside for the duration of the book, to the Royal family that gradually entangles Vaelin in its schemes, or the various adversaries that Vaelin confronts along the way – all of them stick in the mind and are vividly alive so that there was never a need for me to refer to the inevitable dramatis personae appendix at the back of the book.
The story is told almost exclusively through Vaelin’s perspective, but there are also some short framing scenes set further into the future that from page one paint something of the legend that has been created around Vaelin’s actions over the years, which we then get to learn are very different from what actually transpired. Ryan doesn’t overplay this aspect but uses it lightly and effectively to show us different shadings of the main character, not least the way that Vaelin is observed to redact his own recollections when talking with others. There’s none of the multi-perspective complexity of George RR Martin’s books, however, and so much of how we feel about Blood Song will depend on our feelings for Vaelin specifically: he’s a ruthless killer in battle, but a conflicted one with a heart and brain and he certainly worked for me.
Although coming from the gritty, realistic end of the fantasy market, it never fully shakes off the early YA feel to it in that the violence and gore is never too off-putting and bad language almost non-existent, unlike so many of the grimmer entries in the fantasy market in the last decade. The battles range from one-on-one sword fights to ‘helicopter’ descriptions of the stratagems employed by huge armies sweeping across desert plains, and every one of these scenes succeeds in convincing, entertaining and educating while also masterfully landing its own emotional blows on the reader when it needs to.
Some fantasy fans might be put off by the perceived lack of magic, especially in the first half of the book in which other than place names it all feels very firmly set in a recognisably earthbound medieval setting. The Faith itself has no more practical substance to it than any contemporary religion. However, this is another case of Ryan being very smart because as the book progresses it becomes clear that Vaelin’s success in battle is no mere case of training, talent and intuition but rather is informed by something else entirely, while the Faith is increasingly shown to be just a bland camouflage for something far darker, more powerful and malevolent that gradually reveals itself as the action progresses.
And boy, does the action progress. If I have one real criticism of Blood Song it’s that it’s just too damn fast moving. I could cheerfully have spent twice as long reading about Vaelin’s upbringing and early years, but before we know it he’s a senior commander leading huge armies. I wish there had been more detail and time spent over almost every part, but equally it means that the book is given a furious pace that never lets up or releases its grip on the reader – a far cry from my complaints about The First Blade which seemed to get through much the same length of prose without achieving anything much of note by the end other than setting up the next two books, an outcome that left me feeling thoroughly unfulfilled.
Ryan certainly doesn’t make this mistake: while leaving plenty of aspects to pick up on in subsequent volumes, Blood Song also delivers a perfectly formed and satisfying standalone novel. Everything that is set up in the first pages is paid off by the finish, which packs a powerful twist revelation; the story is complete and yet simultaneously leaves us begging for more. That makes it a perfect example for how to write a book that is also a part of a series – JK Rowling was also a master of this with the Harry Potter books of course – and just makes me even more admiring of Ryan’s craft and talent as a whole.
The bottom line, if you haven’t guessed it already, is that this is a very impressive first novel and a must-read for fantasy fans – or indeed those who want to be fantasy fans. Or just lovers of fine writing in any genre, come to that.
Blood Song: Book 1 of Raven’s Shadow is currently available in paperback and hardcover from book shops, and e-book formats from Amazon and Apple. The second volume in the series is due to be published in July 2014.