Blood Song (2013) is the first volume in Anthony Ryan's Raven's Shadow series, a new epic fantasy saga published by Orbit. Blood Song has been lurking around as a self-published ebook for a while (gaining insane reviews) - now it is being released as a book-book.
Blood Song is the story of Vaelin Al Sorna. As a child, he's abandoned at the gates of the Sixth Order by his father, Battle Lord (sort of "high marshal" to King Janus). The orders are monastic organisations - each has its specific focus (2: philosophy, 5: healing, 6: kicking ass), and joining one is pretty much a life long commitment. You forget your family, forget your past - do nothing but train, learn and study. The curious thing is that the Orders are devoutly irreligious - the "Unified Realm" (four kingdoms squished together) has long eschewed belief in gods and myths. When the Orders are rooting out "heresy" (the Fourth Order's task), they're persecuting faith of any sort. A nice little twist.
Of course, forgetting one's past is easier when you join the Order as a street urchin. When you're Vaelin, heir to a noble family and child of a Big Name, it is harder to shed the outside world. In the epic fantasy tradition, much of Blood Song focuses on Vaelin's training years. As well as all the anticipated difficulties that come with joining an organisation of lethal lunatics, Vaelin's also got his own issues to deal with. Why did his dad dump him here? Who was his mother, really? Are people trying to kill him (that is, people besides his classmates and instructors)? Why do some of his fellow students hate him so much?
I don't think it gives too much away to say that the answers to most of these questions are wrapped up in revelations of Vaelin's Chosen One-ness. Vaelin's destiny has been predetermined by a lot of different players - his mother, his father, the king, the princess, the Order, the other Orders and forces even more esoteric than that. It doesn't help that, as Vaelin stumbles through his training and his first combat experiences, he keeps bouncing against other prophecies. Prophecies that, in a resolutely secular world, ought not exist.
Blood Song is structured around the now-familiar framing devices of Vaelin chatting with a scribe (see: Patrick Rothfuss, Glen Cook, Jeff Salyards, etc...). But Mr. Ryan adds in a few twists to keep this fresh. The first immediately apparent: Vaelin is not in a position of triumph, or, indeed, commanding any sort of respect. He's a prisoner of the Alpiran Empire and absolutely loathed by the man chronicling his life. As the book opens, Vaelin is a captive, en route to his execution. The man he speaks with, Verniers, detests him. At some point, we learn, Vaelin has slaughtered "The Hope", Verniers' friend and the hero of the Alpiran people. That makes for chilly company. Vaelin is asked to recount his tale not as a defense or a confession, but as a matter of the historical record. Verniers doesn't care about Vaelin - all he wants is an accurate picture of the socio-political causes of the recent war. It is a bit like taking the Red Baron captive and then having a chat about the Serbian unrest that led to World War I.
Although most of Blood Song is Vaelin's narrative (in the third person), Mr. Ryan keeps bringing us back to the framing device. And this is where the second twist becomes apparent: the story we're reading isn't the story Vaelin is recounting. The reader gets an omniscient narrative that's all about Vaelin, his coming of age, his friendships, torments, etc. Verniers is getting something much, much dryer and impersonal. This also means that Verniers, although he's doing this to get a "correct" record of things, isn't getting the truth. In our narrative, we learn how much of this is tied up with random happenstance, individual schemes and possible even Big Secret Destinies. In the "history" that Vaelin is reciting, the human element is being carefully excised: the focus is solely on King Janus (Vaelin's lord) and his imperial ambitions. If nothing else, Vaelin's tactful omissions make him more appreciated by the reader: courtesy of his cunning, discretion and humility.
Of course, quirks of the framing device aside, Blood Song is a very traditional, very commercial, very epic fantasy. Vaelin is an (essentially) orphaned Chosen One with all sorts of special powers and unique abilities (including natural leadership) that make him More Better than everyone else around him. Coincidence and contrivance both conspire to make him the center of every event and every story. As Verniers points out, Vaelin is a man with many, many names: everywhere he goes, he becomes legendary (and/or fulfils a legend). His progression through Blood Song is predictable. If you've ever read any epic fantasy ever, you'll understand what he achieves and, to some degree, how he achieves it. This isn't a book about surprises.
However, while Blood Song tells a familiar story, it does do so while deftly avoiding many of the genre's pitfalls. The world-building is, for example, streamlined. There are no monologues, no info-dumps, no lengthy explanations of imperial history or magical systems. What we need to know, we learn in natural, dialogue-driven ways. Some of it is incredibly important (for example, how Vaelin's father led a raid on the Meldenean Islands), but even that is delivered concisely and conversationally, not in content-heavy monologues.
Vaelin, although certainly the Chosen One, is also, delightfully, not the best at everything. He makes stupid mistakes. He puts his foot in his mouth. Many of his classmates are better than he is. A lot of Vaelin's success comes from dealing with people that he knows are smarter than he is and respecting their wisdom. Certainly he's the most heroic of them all, but his legacy comes from his leadership, not his mano y mano defeat of Big Bads. It is always more interesting to read about heroes that are imperfect and clever, not omnipotent and invincible. Vaelin is firmly placed in the latter category.
Finally, and I realise this will sound like a bit like a broadside against an entire genre, Blood Song is proof that escapism can be unproblematic. Too often we (as readers) forgive the flaws of the genre simply because they've always been there. Certainly, I'm not going to hold up this book as a shining example of female empowerment (the two primary female characters: Sherin and Lyrna - are ok, not great), but Vaelin isn't proving his manliness (and titillating the reader) with a string of sexual conquests or illustrating the mega-darkness of the world through graphic violence or rape. War sucks, life is tough, bad things happen to good people - it all still comes through without the savagery that's sometimes feels like contemporary fantasy's de facto setting.
Moreover, enemies are enemies - they're never turned into a vicious, inhuman other - a problem that's plagued high fantasy all the way back to Tolkien (and Howard and...). There's no objective right and wrong here and, perhaps more importantly, there are no lazy real world analogues. (Interesting side point: if it weren't for the cover, we're never given any reason to assume that Vaelin [or anyone else in the book] is white.) If there's a lesson in Blood Song it is that one culture's saviour is the other's monster, and, equally, that's a lesson learned by all the factions in the book. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill here, but I like relentless commercial, page-turning, top-selling epic fantasy, and it is nice to have an occasion where I don't have to caveat that statement with "...despite the rapiness and racism".
Blood Song is the sort of book that reminds me of when I was twelve: I'd check a book out from the library, hide on the sofa and devour it cover to cover (with breaks only to pee, turn out the necessary lights and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Now I'm a little more critical (jaded?), but I still love - and want - that feeling of completely absorbing escapism that good fantasy can supply - and Blood Song brings it in force. It might not be new, or different, or even particularly surprising, but this is still the sort of book that makes you squeak "woohoo!" at key moments - and there can never be too many of those.