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Thursday, September 12, 2013

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

Read part I of Zachary's review of Blood Song

 After yesterday's epic review, here's the continuation of Zachary's thoughts. At this point I must point out that I still happen to love Blood Song but couldn't refute Zack's points entirely. I still believe that it is one of the best debuts that I've ever read and especially a prime example of heroic fantasy. Currently Anthony seems to be the logical successor to David Gemmell's throne. It is a choice about the genre and therefore I can only request readers to decide for themselves as Zack & me have done. Now read ahead to see the remainder of his thoughts...


Of course, I’m missing the last piece: the story itself -- or, as it were, the plot. What actually happens, and do those events change my overall (not too favorable) impression? Well, this is where Ryan throws a bit of a curveball -- not a huge deviation from the modern norm, but enough of a variation to be noteworthy.

The thing is, there isn't much of a conventional plot structure. After the many legend-building events of his adolescence, Vaelin moves about with little seeming direction, which is odd considering the fact that his rather lengthy story is being told to a chronicler -- a chronicler, it should be noted, who did not ask for a life story but the account of how Vaelin became an adviser to a king; a chronicler who is also an impatient enemy and who we can assume wants Vaelin to get to the point. (I’ll refrain from going into an analysis of why, at the beginning of Part IV, we realize that the story we have been reading is not the same story being told to the chronicler. But I digress…)

Even by heroic fantasy standards, it is a conspicuously meandering series of events that Ryan has his protagonist ably navigate. They are intriguing events, to be sure, leading Vaelin ever closer to a battle one hopes will justify the framing narrative of the chronicler, but I imagine most readers would be hard pressed to recount them in the same way one can recount the order of events in, say, Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Son -- or, for that matter, much of the work of David Gemmell, an admittedly huge influence on Ryan.

Funnily enough, being a person who doesn't care about plot too much, for me this wasn't a problem -- as it clearly wasn't for most readers. The only time I felt a stab of annoyance was when, at page 405 (out of 575), Ryan jumps us forward several years in order to finally answer the chronicler’s initial query. It is a jarring moment, finding our protagonist years older and more experienced. I think the narrative could have benefited from a tighter structure, but the plot here is secondary to the episodic growth of Vaelin into the man we meet at the beginning of the book.

The various events serve as a justification, as it were, for why we’re reading nearly 600 pages of text. For me, I think it’s clear there just isn't enough justification. Happily for Ryan, I seem to be in the minority.

The Writing

Whenever a reviewer talks about an author’s writing, the subject should be treated in a similar way to other factors -- giving both a nod in recognition to what the author is attempting to do, while also noting where the effort fails. In Blood Song, Ryan is clearly not trying to craft beautiful sentence after beautiful sentence. Instead, he is working in the popular fiction tradition, using relatively simple language and sentence structures to convey his meaning quickly and efficiently. For the most part, he’s successful in his task.

The ways in which he fails, however, are very basic. Like many modern authors, Ryan uses far too many comma splices in his writing: “But this vague sense of security evaporated when the darkness came, it was like running in a void where every step brought the threat of a painful fall.” This so easily avoidable flaw is more than a bit irksome for those of us who pay a great deal of attention (perhaps too much attention) to such things, but it has become so commonplace a practice I feel weird even pointing it out.

Weird feelings or no, however, the construction is used nearly once a page in the first two hundred pages of Blood Song (after which point the writing becomes somewhat smoother) and severely impacted my reading experience. Sometimes the effect is that the narration becomes truly clunky: “There were screams as he surged to his feet, screams of pain and terror, something wet lashed across his face, stinging his eyes.” Not only does such a sentence make what is otherwise efficient and propulsive storytelling a bit ragged and cumbersome, it begs the question of why it couldn't have been caught and broken into two sentences (or linked with a semicolon, perhaps) to achieve greater clarity and grace.

At times, it’s almost as if the author didn't want to slow down, and thus chose to join so many sentences together with only a comma. Indeed, at other times a comma would be welcome, slowing down the thoughts so they don’t run together: “Vaelin had seen similar expressions on people’s faces when they offered thanks to the Departed, as if their normal self [sic] had stepped out for a moment leaving only the Faith behind.” A comma after “moment” would do much to order the ultimate sentiment of this sentence, while also offering the reader a pause to ponder what he or she has just read. It’s not necessary, of course, and as noted many readers won’t care, but I’d be interested to see how positively the reading experience would be impacted by a few judicious alterations.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s so close to working. That it fails to is more than occasionally frustrating. Nonetheless, to say Ryan is a bad writer because of this would be entirely inappropriate. Though he’s no great crafter of sentences, he seems to know instinctively how to create a rhythmic, easily-read flow of words. It’s no mean feat, and a lot of authors would do well to create the effect Ryan does. While many, myself included, get too caught up in the act of writing a sentence and thus create something ungainly, for the most part Ryan resists over-complicating things. It serves the needs of an active story quite well. Now and then, it achieves a level of depth that belies its simplicity:

     “They laughed together, for a long time. Pain receded and was forgotten. They laughed and never spoke about how much it hurt.”

I wish there were more well-crafted sentiments like this in the novel. Fortunately, as the author’s general style improves as the book moves on, the story itself follows by becoming more sophisticated and subtle. Ryan seems to hit his stride a little before the halfway point, clearly demarcating one section from the other. This is as maddening as it is rewarding, causing me to wonder how much editing went into the whole affair. It could have been a much more consistent work, had more care been taken.


Reviewing books in depth is not a normal activity for me -- a fact that may be apparent in what I've written above. In the process of reading Blood Song for review, I've undoubtedly paid closer attention than I might otherwise have done if I were reading purely for enjoyment (though I don’t really read purely for enjoyment anymore; that went, sadly and for whatever reason, out the window the moment I started trying to write fiction myself). As is the case with many things, this has both positive and negative effects.

I doubt, had I not been reading the book for review, that I’d feel any different about it -- not an important fact, perhaps, but at least you know I’m being honest and not letting my close reading push me into a state of hyper-criticism. In fact, I’d probably have stopped reading the book before I hit the hundredth page.

It’s just not, as people are wont to say, my thing.

But for the folks who are more in line with what Anthony Ryan is trying to do (and, I’m convinced, is largely succeeding in doing)? This is a great book to pick up. It is not, despite its faults as I see them, a clumsy thing or an embarrassing thing. It is not, most assuredly, any kind of failure. In fact, in most ways it is a success. It may not seem that way in light of my review, but ultimately, as I hope is abundantly clear and painfully redundant, there is what I want and what the intended reader wants. Thanks for reading!

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.

Note: Warriors Battle art courtesy of Wallsave.


Nayan said...

I really don't know if this makes sense but since I could not refute much of what Zachary has stated, my appreciation of the book just went up a notch. How did Anthony Ryan manage to impress me so much with such flaws ?

Kudos to Zachary for writing such a comprehensive review.

Clifford said...

From what I've heard there were some edits done to this book before it was physically published. Was this a review of the e-book or the hardcover edition?

The Reader said...

@ Clifford

This was a review of the e-book of the Penguin copy.


The Reader said...

@ Nayan

You said it buddy :) Zack really has written a fantastic review and even though he has pointed some deficiencies. I can't really fault Anthony for this debut. it is still one of my all-time favorite books.


Zacharyjernigan said...

Thanks immensely for the comments, folks. It means a lot. I'm happy that, though I didn't like the book too much, others got so much enjoyment out of it!

Anonymous said...

Annnnd... that's the kind of review we DON'T want to read about SFF.

Go mainstream. You'll find plenty books to exercice this kind of pointless analysis.

SFF is about joy. Not about tropes, or whatever. If it works, we don't care why.

Blood Song works.

Liviu said...

I kind of agree that trying to analyze (core) sff novels as literary texts is rarely useful and I definitely agree that "Blood Song works", but I think it is interesting to understand "why", is it just conjuncture (book hits the market at the right time so to speak - as here the book obviously did not have any power marketing beyond word of mouth when originally independently published), is it something about the author's style, is it the characters, world building, what mix of the above...?

Many try, few succeed after all...

Zacharyjernigan said...

Oh, I think it's fine to hold an opinion about reviews, but saying "that's the kind of review we DON'T want to read about SFF" seems rather odd, Anonymous, considering that a couple people in the comments before you seemed to have liked reading it.

Who is this "we" you speak of? Surely not me or a lot of the folks who take the issue seriously, as if (ha!) we're actually reading literature. I've been reading sff for all of my adult life, and I love analyzing novels and short stories. It brings me joy.

Now, I'm not defending my analysis -- take it or leave it; it was never intended to speak to everyone, as I believe I make clear -- but I am questioning your apparently populist defense of a form of literature people enjoy on a variety of levels, not just your simplistic one.

I'm sorry if all the above sounds angry, but this kind of arrogant assertion of how the literature I love should be read is absolutely indefensible -- and thus angering.

Unknown said...

"SFF is about joy."

Funny, I thought it was also an excellent medium for examining human frailties and strengths, our relationship to technology, or matters of ethics and society.

Not knocking fun books, or books that don't go in a more serious direction - but we readers vary and some of us like to mix it up a bit.

The Reader said...


Very curious usage of "we" that you employ. I surely enjoyed Blood Song as did Liviu & Nayan. However I also invited Zachary to review this book because I like to see what am I mentally glossing over in a book that I frankly love.

I was sure that Zack wouldn't like/love it to the same extent as me but the point here was to have him analyze it from his POV and that's what he did admirably.

I agree with what deficiencies he has pointed out but that still doesn't make Blood Song any less of a favorite or Anthony Ryan any less of a beloved author. Zack gave us an honest review & I happen to love his style of thinking and review. This blog has different reviewers with contrasting styles. Zack just added his voice to ours eloquently.

In the end it's all about enjoyment, how you go about enjoying the books you read. Zack does it this way, I do it differently as do you. Yet that is no cause to get angry and spew at him behind a anonymous handle or for that matter any handle at all.

Blood Song works splendidly but it doesn't need people to shout down those readers that didn't enjoy it as much as its fans.


Civilian Reader said...

I would say that "we" read SFF for a multitude of reasons. We may even read different novels different ways - sometimes for pure pleasure, sometimes because we're in the mood for something with depth, social/political commentary, etc. Sometimes we may read a novel expecting one thing and find something else.

"We" also need reviews of all kinds. In depth, critical, positive, brief, and every other kind.

It never fails to amaze me how narrow-minded some readers of Speculative Fiction can be.

Anonymous said...

I dont think your review is fair, if you go down to dissecting every sentence in a book it just seems over-kill. And one more thing, you aren't even fully backing your own review judging by the number of times you have tried to apologize to the readers for writing this review.

This book was one hell of a read, not absolutely perfect but it is among the best.

Zacharyjernigan said...

I'm so pleased with the comments following my review -- yes, even with Anonymous's, which I'm glad to see people rebutting. It's allowed me to see how three people I admire look at the issue.

As for your question, Liviu: I think BLOOD SONG has been such a critical success simply because it gives readers what they want -- a well written, exciting story that conforms in many ways to reader expectation while offering enough of a unique voice to not feel entirely formulaic.

I think it works precisely because it wears its heart on its sleeve, as sort of a love letter to the genre from which it stems. Books of this kind (Rothfuss's is another good example) gain wide readerships because they speak to the thousands of people who love the genre so much that they want to see more stories told in a similar vein.

...I think, at least. I could be wrong. Maybe I'm oversimplifying.

And, lest I look like a jerk for not clarifying again: there's nothing wrong with (from my perspective, at least) playing to reader expectation. Every author does it to varying degrees. I'm not a big fan of works that I think play too close to the formula -- and hell, I'm sure my own fiction plays too closely to formula for certain readers -- but other readers, many of them very sophisticated, find immense virtue in the well-trod path (again, as I see it).

Liviu said...

I completely agree about "a well written, exciting story that conforms in many ways to reader expectation while offering enough of a unique voice to not feel entirely formulaic.", but that describes many books and few have the success Blood Song had

Looking at the recent successes in the genre who sold millions of copies of their first few books (say Rothfuss, Abercrombie, B. Weeks), I think that having standout characters is the difference with other acclaimed authors who did not catch as well with the readers at large and I think that Blood Song has that potential too, but of course we need to see book 2 first

Zacharyjernigan said...

That's a good point, and you're probably right. I guess I sometimes have a hard time judging: to me, while many characters are likable, they don't "stand out" so much as speak to a certain type of reader. Rothfuss and Ryan, I think, are writing characters that appeal to folks who want to see the progression from childhood to (typically) manhood.

This isn't saying they're not written well, obviously, but for me they're not unusually distinctive. Rather, they're like Ender, precocious and able to be identified with. Their strength is their ability to speak to such a wide range of readers. (Maybe that is, in and of itself, the "standout" feature, though. I'll have to think about that.)

As for Abercrombie and Weeks, I'm not as familiar with their work, so I can't analyze anything there. I do get the impression that Abercrombie, at least, has a cast of characters -- something, say, Jon Sprunk lacked in SHADOW'S SON. I think it's easier to pull off the grim stuff, eschewing the childhood experience, when you've got a cast to play off of.

Chef Effie Mor said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Zachary's review. It informs and gives writers and fans expectations to hold fast to.... do we not want our authors to hone and develop their skills for their fans? Of course we do......I also agree the book is fantastic in that it is a great story to read and well done. Personally I'm excited to have pre-ordered the second book, TOWER LORD, out 1 July, 2014. I will look for improvements in the second book. I bet Ryan has learned a few new things and will offer me a pleasant surprise.


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