I must admit that Blood Song by Anthony Ryan came to my notice a long time back. Back in the end of 2012. When this explosive debut took the genre by storm with everybody calling it to the Best Book of the Year and beyond. But with the second book coming out now, The Tower Lord – the clamor for this book hasn't died down. If possible, it has only gone higher. And so I dutifully set down to discover why it became a phenomenon that any fantasy reader couldn't ignore anymore. To peel back the magnificent hype and the rabid following this book has gained over time.
Well. Having read this now, I've got to say I have fallen under the magic myself. A surprisingly strong narrative pull and the intriguing charisma that oozes off the heroic Vaelin Al Sorna combines with the deft pacing and spectacular world building to make this book a winner at different levels. It's a book any fantasy fan worth his salt should be reading.
Despite my fears and misgivings that the book follows the traditional course of epic fantasy genre – complete with boy growing into his destiny, prophecies and a shadowed doom that threatens the existence of the world - Anthony wraps these familiar tropes effortlessly into his narrative, completely owning them and presenting the same in a fresh and entertaining manner , that you can't help being sucked into the world of Vaelin Al Sorna.
From the moment the ten-year old Vaelin is cruelly dumped outside the gates of the Sixth Order - his training, his brotherhood with the other neophytes and the budding cautious camaraderie blossoming out to trust and friendship, the Tests within the Order - Ryan beautifully draws out the detail while never letting the narrative pull slacken. It's taut and Ryan builds out his world as Vaelin goes out exploring and then takes up various missions for his King and the Faith.
The Faith - a surprisingly "godless" religion that believes that the ancestral spirits from "The Beyond" - a shadowy place were people's souls go to after death - will guide their actions and thus condemns and chastises other beliefs around the existence of God or idol-worship. Faith plays a critical role in influencing the events that shapes Vaelin's destiny. In the world - a kingdom called the Unified Realm that consists of four major states existing in an uneasy alliance under the rule of King Janus is where most of the events of book one unfurl. And Anthony Ryan chooses Vaelin to be the single narrator for majority of the book.
Ryan excels at his characterization - having built up Vaelin in the broad strokes of the archetypal hero - capable, intelligent and sensitive, trained and bred for violence and war by his kingdom and faith - I had no complaints of watching the book events unfold from inside his head. I don't know if I missed much - but Ryan does a good job of ensuring the secondary characters - Vaelin's brothers from the Order - Nortah and Caenis, the scheming cunning King Janus or his feisty independent daughter Princess Lyrna, sister Sherrin from the Third Order - all get ample opportunities to be developed into remarkable unforgettable characters as well.
A lot of the coming-of-age sequences centered around trials within the Order while Vaelin is growing up has far-reaching consequences - Ryan having done quite an admirable job in typing up these threads onto the overall series sequence. it doesn't quite fit into the grim-dark neo-fantasy wave that we've been witnessing of late but remains comfortably ensconced in the molds of traditional heroic fantasy. Like a David Gemmell. And quite a fitting tribute by Anthony Ryan as well I must say.
Faith is mixed well with aspects of "magic" - here referred to as the "Gift" by some and the "Dark" by others uninitiated to these powers - it typically enhances one's ability to perform any craft. In Vaelin's case, Blood Song - warns him to the dangers around him and thus excel in the battles or fights. The origin of such magic is still unclear and perhaps, Ryan is setting up this for the overall series arc exploration.
Was there anything I didn't like about it ? Ahem. Well, yeah - Vaelin is sometimes too much of a brooding hero. and never really seems vulnerable. And the names, by gods had me in a tizzy trying to remember the full names and import of these characters. But minor quibles.
So why should you read this book?
An effortless narrative that is compelling and entertaining at the same time, a charismatic hero with his own share of tragedy and magic, some wondrous world-building coupled with excellent pacing - detailed battle and war-scenes, forbidden love. Everything you ever loved about this genre - is rehashed and presented in a riveting fresh manner, guaranteed to entertain you. There is nothing new here perhaps but the familiarity is comforting. And at the end of the day, a great book is a great book. Never mind the bloody tropes or critics I say.