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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guest Review: Blood Song by Anthony Ryan Part I (reviewed by Zachary Jernigan)

A few weeks ago I noticed Zachary was wondering about Blood Song on Facebook. Both Liviu & I are huge fans of it since we read it last year and I was very curious to see how Zachary would find it to be. So I ended up asking Zack if he would be interested in doing a guest review of Blood Song, to which he unreservedly agreed. So read ahead to find out how Zachary found this intriguing debut.


When Mihir asked me to do a review of Anthony Ryan’s debut, I was flattered and excited -- flattered because Mihir is one of the most thorough and dedicated reviewers out there (not to mention an overall gracious, kind-hearted individual), and excited because I’d already heard so much about the book in question. Blood Song has one of the highest ratings on Goodreads and an astoundingly high rating on Amazon. Mihir and Liviu praised it awesomely and unabashedly on this site about a year ago.

How, I asked myself, could a book be so universally praised and still be good?

To contextualize, I come from the school that proposes this thesis: great literature will always have a sizable number of detractors. Great literature, in other words, is divisive. It will be received passionately and denounced on occasion. It will challenge preconceptions and make the reader uncomfortable. You know where I’m going with this, and I won’t apologize for this view: I’m not now, nor have I ever been, one who likes work that plays to its readers hopes and desires too much -- work that validates comfortable tropes, delighting in formulae.

And yet…

I had a conversation with my brother yesterday, about this review. I read him a few paragraphs, and he said, “It sounds like you’re criticizing the subgenre rather than this specific book. You can’t criticize the book for simply being what it’s trying to be -- for not being what you’d like it to be.” This got me to thinking about one of the pitfalls of reviewing, and reviewing this book in particular: Namely, I don’t like most heroic fantasy. I’m not even a huge fan of most epic fantasy, for that matter, and Anthony Ryan is an author deeply, sometimes rather charmingly, in love with these two sub-genres. To criticize him for creating a book that aspires primarily to show this love -- to pay homage -- would be wrong.

And yet (again)...

It would also be dishonest of me, not to mention disrespectful, not to treat this book as an independent creature, a work of art worthy of being judged on its own merit. Furthermore, though he’d be too kind to say so, I imagine Mihir would be disappointed with me if I didn't attempt to flex my critical muscle (such as it is). For all its power and clarity -- and I will talk of the book’s strengths, I promise -- Blood Song did fail to find fertile ground in the squishy gray matter of my brain. It’s my task now to tell you why.

Character and World

Blood Song is the story of Vaelin Al Sorna, a man who, like Kvothe of The Name of the Wind (a book with many striking similarities to Blood Song), has achieved the distinction of bearing many names. He is a legend in many lands, feared and respected in equal measure. Though tarnished and disgraced at the outset of the book, there is never any doubt that he is a hero in the traditional narrative sense. (Get used to hearing the word tradition, or a variation on it, because this is traditionalist fantasy of the most overt kind.)

You see, Vaelin is struck from a well-used mold.

At the beginning of his story (which he tells to a chronicler, just as Kvothe does in The Name of the Wind) he is left at the gate of the Sixth Order, a military academy for adolescent males. While this one act conveniently turns our protagonist into an orphan, allowing him to conform to the longstanding orphan-hero stereotype, the twelve-year-old boy nonetheless comes ready with built-in cache. His father -- the man who abandoned him to this ascetic life of danger -- is the Battle Lord, the King’s right-hand man. Eventually it is revealed that his mother too was a well-respected personage, a healer who nearly became the leader of another Order.

Almost immediately upon arriving in his new home at the Sixth Order, Vaelin begins distinguishing himself. Though Ryan wisely doesn't overload his young hero with skill, the boy nonetheless proves to be the most talented of his peer group. He is also the wisest, which is odd considering his apparent naivete at the beginning of the book.

The trend of setting Vaelin apart continues with a marked lack of subtlety, but subtlety was never the goal. Point in fact, what follows over the next 150 pages is an undiluted -- and, admittedly, very effective -- exercise in legend building:

 - The first person Vaelin kills is a man who “made his living with a bow.” And how did he kill this man? With his own bow, despite the fact that he one of the poorer archery students.

 - A few moments later, a mystical wolf saves him.

 - He encounters interesting people by chance, thus allowing him the opportunity to make risky choices and do the right thing.

 - He acquires an animal companion, and in time becomes the only boy to receive a wild-born stallion as his steed.

 - Though only a young adolescent, during his final test in the Order he stuns his interviewers -- literally the highest officers of the Faith (a somewhat ambiguous system of ancestor worship), each of whom is versed in interrogation -- with his brutal honesty. He nearly brings the sole female interrogator to tears. Whereas the boy before him was grilled for some time, Vaelin passes his ordeal in mere minutes.

 - Finally, when he visits an order of healers, his first act is to calm a boy undergoing surgery -- to banish the boy’s intense pain with just a few words.

All of this is trope heaven, obviously, the told and retold story of the preternaturally talented youth who is fate-bound to live larger than life and be a leader of men. It is Ender’s Game, the aforementioned The Name of the Wind, and so many other YA-in-all-but-name tales. Like most of these sorts of books, Blood Song is far too long for its own good, indulging liberally (for about 40% of the book) in the minutiae of the protagonist’s schooling before moving on to any sort of plot -- a plot that does finally begin to surface around the 200-page mark.

As for the world and its peoples, but for a lack of romantic situations it offers the protagonist there is little to distinguish it from others of similar vein, and there are countless of similar vein. It is entertaining in its familiar evocation of a vaguely European culture -- a culture that Ryan paints admirably, using spare, economic strokes. It is also, as you might imagine, rather safe: excepting the violence, it is a PG-rated, rather whitebread world. There is little to offend the average fantasy reader. This is both a strength, as it allows for a wide readership, and a weakness, as it fails to seem credible in a book marketed for adults.

As the narrator catalogues events both violent and political, the focus always, always returns to the bonds between men -- yet never the bonds born of drug usage or even drinking (in fact, at every opportunity the narrator seems to dismiss the imbibing of alcohol as foolhardy). There is no masturbation -- a statistical unlikelihood among adolescent males, one assumes. There is precious little sexuality at all, in fact, and the appearance of women is noteworthy. They typically appear as either complete ciphers, mother figures, or cold-hearted schemers.

I won’t allow this last fact (at least as I see it) to be interpreted as a denouncement of Ryan as a misogynist or even a person disinterested in matters of the opposite sex -- let writers write about what they want! -- but I will actively interpret Ryan as one among many authors who seem unwilling to paint the adolescence of a hero as anything other than virtuous by a very narrow definition. (This is, I should point out, not to say that Ryan doesn't know what he’s doing, painting his protagonist this way. At several points in the narrative, he takes care to point out how rigidly naive a character Vaelin is. The author should be praised for showing us this often-overlooked side of the hero archetype.)

For those who enjoy these kinds of characters inhabiting this kind of world, Ryan’s debut will be enthusiastically received -- indeed, as it has already proven to be. For those of us tired of all the sentimental and risk-averse rehashing, though, it will come as less of a delight and more of a confirmation that the romantic traditions of the genre are not in any danger of being buried under all the grit and grime of Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence.

Bear in mind, this is not a condemnation of Ryan or his readers. As I hope was made clear in my introduction, there are many types of narratives, some of which I’m not a huge fan. 

Because I’m not a huge fan, I find myself wondering: In respect to character and place, is Blood Song an exceedingly good example of its “kind?” Does my fatigue with the conventions of heroic fantasy and epic fantasy blind me to the merits of Ryan’s work? Surely, his novel’s evocation of character and place displays a great many strengths to those readers looking for something traditional yet featuring a modern upgrade of violence and character introspection. It’s compelling and easily digested -- not to mention likable and rather comforting -- and nothing to be looked down upon simply because it plays largely by the rules of its influences.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to recommend the characters or the world he’s created.....

********** Rest of the review to be continued tomorrow **********

NOTE: (1) Here ends part I of Zachary Jernigan's epic review of one of my all-time favorite books Blood Song.

 (2) Ender's Game picture courtesy of Tyler Coates & Flavorwire. Warrior battle drawing art courtesy of The Gates & Wallpaperup.

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of NO RETURN
Read The Debut Novel: A Series Of Intentions by Zachary Jernigan (guest post) 
Read Civilian Reader's Interview with the Author 

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Zachary Jernigan was born and brought up in the United States and has lived for most of his life in the western half of the country. He has a BA in Religious Studies from Northern Arizona University (2005) and an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast program (2011). His short fiction has appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Escape Pod. He has previously worked in a variety of fields and avoids seeking management positions. He currently lives in Northern Arizona and No Return is his debut.


Nayan said...

While I really loved the book, it feels good to read an opposing point of view especially if it's written so well :-)

Zacharyjernigan said...

What an awesome thing to say, Nayan! Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Hopefully I won't bash up the second part tomorrow!


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