Blood Song: It’s The Name of the Wind with warrior monks

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBlood Song by Anthony RyanBlood Song by Anthony Ryan

I purchased Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song because it showed up in my Goodreads “recommended” list with a ton of 5-star reviews. I’m usually suspicious, however, when the reviews so overwhelmingly endorse the greatness of a book. Based on my experience with Blood Song, I was right to be suspicious.

While Blood Song is not horrible — I probably would’ve slid it 3 stars had I finished — I’m totally clueless as to how it earned so many 5-star reviews. Granted, I’m long past the age where I enjoy coming-of-age stories, if I ever did like them much. So maybe that’s the reason I don’t understand why Blood Song is getting so much love.

I read about 60% of the book, and it still seemed like it was in the prologue. I get that the harsh military training the characters endure is a big part of the story, but does it have to be so much of it? Call me cynical, but I got tired real quick of all the sob stories. Enough of the poor little boys abandoned by their parents already; this ain’t Little Orphan Annie. And OK, it’s pretty clear these 6th Order fellas are supposed to be all badass. I just don’t need to know every detail of what it takes to earn their Eagle Scout badges.

There is a good story in here somewhere; I did enjoy the parts that take place in the present. It’s just buried under all the writing. The dialogue isn’t very realistic and the story comes across as overly planned-out instead of flowing.

All due respect to Mr. Ryan; I apologize for being a hater, but there is just nothing special enough about Blood Song to hold its own against all the other good fantasy books that are currently out there. Anthony Ryan definitely has potential, but Blood Song isn’t there yet.

~Greg HersomA Raven's Shadow Novel (3 Book Series) by Anthony Ryan


Blood Song by Anthony Ryan epic fantasy book reviewsIt’s the Name of the Wind with warrior monks. Well, all right, there’s more to Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song than that, but I wouldn’t say I’m being entirely unfair either. Blood Song is book one in the RAVEN’S SONG series and the story of Vaelin Al Sorna, a legendary hero with a surfeit of cool nicknames who seems to have fallen on hard times after killing somebody important, and who decides to tell the story of his life to a royal Chronicler. Vaelin’s deeds have been exaggerated, but what becomes clear in the telling is that he pretty much is a storybook hero anyway, with a Destiny and skills that border on the superhuman. So he’s basically just Kvothe cosplaying as a soldier, right? Well, not exactly. He is a very different character with very different focuses in his life, and overall Blood Song is oriented less toward Patrick Rothfuss’ preoccupation with telling a beautiful story and more toward just telling a cool story.

And in fairness, it is pretty cool. Vaelin’s story begins as his father drops him off with the military order of his homeland’s religion. Vaelin is not exactly thrilled to become a warrior monk, but no one can deny that he seems to be almost absurdly good at it (he is the only boy in his class to parry the fencing master’s stroke at the first try). Vaelin grows up with the other youths of the Order, forging friendships but also uncovering hints of plotting in the shadows as various forces work to control both him and the future of his country. As he ages and begins to lead men into battle for his king, Vaelin’s fame and influence grow, but he finds himself ever more enmeshed in the machinations surrounding him as he seeks to understand the political moves of his king and the nature of a half-understood magical gift he hides from his brothers of the Faith — a mysterious ability called the blood song.

See? Cool. Perhaps not sagging with originality, but fairly engaging all the same. Still, it must be said that Vaelin is a pretty obvious wish-fulfilment character despite Ryan’s half-hearted attempts at tempering things (Vaelin’s men don’t love him… they just respect the hell out of him. Likewise, he’s not actually handsome… just very magnetic in appearance and popular with attractive women). The individual reader’s tolerance for that kind of character will play a large part in how much s/he enjoys the story. I admit that when I began Blood Song I wasn’t very impressed with it, but Ryan did improve over the course of the text and for all that his plot threads and protagonist are a bit old hat, he still managed to subvert the usual tropes in a few interesting ways. I particularly liked his work with Vaelin’s companion Nortah, who seems like the usual “sneering, aristocratic rival” type until he goes in a direction both welcome and unexpected.

In fact, most characters are decently drawn, with the unfortunate exception of Vaelin’s main love interest Sherin. (She’s that healer girl. You know the one. She shows up in boatloads of fantasy novels. She’s always good-hearted, caring, stridently ethical, and just a wee bit socially awkward) Vaelin himself is fairly well-realized, though that doesn’t necessarily make him interesting. He’s a little too much the basic “brooding warrior” type, and his dialogue in particular can get more than a little cheesy. He’s not a weak protagonist exactly, but he also isn’t very nuanced. He’s the kind that suits a more plot-driven narrative.

Unfortunately, Blood Song doesn’t have a plot-driven narrative. It’s structured — again echoing The Name of the Wind — more like a character-driven exploration of one man’s life, and while Vaelin is perfectly serviceable as an action hero, he’s not as well suited to less structured material. There are certainly villains and schemes floating around, but for most of the text, the main plot (or what eventually turns out to be the main plot) is only occasionally central to the narrative, trading off with stand-alone incidents developing Vaelin’s relationships and outlook. The fact that this is Ryan’s first novel — with many of the typical first-time novelist flaws — doesn’t help matters. There are too many unlikely meetings with Important People and instances of things working out for Vaelin (or not working out) simply because he is The Hero and that’s the way things work for Heroes. For example, Vaelin’s minor doings are constantly being exaggerated into fresh bits of his growing legend whether he does anything particularly extraordinary or not. This is something I could buy more from Kvothe the Tireless Self-Promoter than from Vaelin the Nobly Self-Effacing.

That said, the novel never drags too much even in the sections that don’t have much to say about the central conflict. Ryan has a good grasp of suspense and knows how to keep a reader reading (maybe the most important qualification for writing this kind of fantasy), so while it can at times to be difficult to figure out why this or that is happening, the goings-on are lively enough that readability isn’t compromised. Basically, Blood Song is a fun book, and it doesn’t end up feeling thin or trivial despite the meandering plot. The world-building is adept, particularly for a debut novel, and Ryan gives the impression that he knows his setting intimately. The spiritual side is especially good. A lot of fantasists tend to duck and dodge around religion, but Ryan makes the conflicting traditions of his world into a major strength for the novel.

I should say something on construction here. Ordinarily grammar and punctuation aren’t really concerns for a book reviewer, but Blood Song was published first as an ebook before Penguin picked it up, and either they’re still using the original version for Kindle or there hasn’t been much editing. That is unfortunate. Ryan has a bad habit of trying to cram descriptions into one sentence per idea, which leads to a lot of awkward, stilted phrasing. Frequently, he even goes beyond awkwardness and into lumbering run-on sentences that stop the flow dead in its tracks. He improves as the book goes on, but never entirely kicks the habit.

Overall, Blood Song is a decent enough example of Heroic Fantasy, and it should entertain its target audience (comprised almost entirely of the sort of person who owns or has daydreamed about owning a sword — you know who you are). It could do with more polish to the prose and the plot, and Ryan does himself no favors with the rather typical design of his protagonist, but some fun world-building helps enervate the material.

~Tim Scheidler

Publisher: From “a new master storyteller” comes the beginning of an epic fantasy saga of blood, honor, and destiny… “The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.” Vaelin Al Sorna was only a child of ten when his father left him at the iron gate of the Sixth Order. The Brothers of the Sixth Order are devoted to battle, and Vaelin will be trained and hardened to the austere, celibate, and dangerous life of a Warrior of the Faith. He has no family now save the Order. Vaelin’s father was Battle Lord to King Janus, ruler of the unified realm. Vaelin’s rage at being deprived of his birthright and dropped at the doorstep of the Sixth Order like a foundling knows no bounds. He cherishes the memory of his mother, and what he will come to learn of her at the Order will confound him. His father, too, has motives that Vaelin will come to understand. But one truth overpowers all the rest: Vaelin Al Sorna is destined for a future he has yet to comprehend. A future that will alter not only the realm, but the world.

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GREG HERSOM’S (on FanLit's staff January 2008 -- September 2012) addiction began with his first Superboy comic at age four. He moved on to the hard-stuff in his early teens after acquiring all of Burroughs’s Tarzan books and the controversial L. Sprague de Camp & Carter edited Conan series. His favorite all time author is Robert E. Howard. Greg also admits that he’s a sucker for a well-illustrated cover — the likes of a Frazetta or a Royo. Greg live with his wife, son, and daughter in a small house owned by a dog and two cats in a Charlotte, NC suburb. He retired from FanLit in Septermber 2012 after 4.5 years of faithful service but he still sends us a review every once in a while.

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TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

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5 comments

  1. malrubius /

    Thanks. I felt the same way. Though I only made it through about 100 pages, the whole thing seemed like write-by-numbers fantasy.

  2. Exactly, but if you look at the reviews on Amazon, it’s like the debut novel of the year. I really don’t get it.

  3. “Overall, Blood Song is a decent enough example of Heroic Fantasy, and it should entertain its target audience (comprised almost entirely of the sort of person who owns or has daydreamed about owning a sword — you know who you are).”

    I completely understand this book and its audience now.
    Your reviews are always so insightful, Tim!

  4. This sounds pretty good; I love monks! And swords!

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