Blood Song, first of a trilogy known as the Raven’s Shadow, is written by Anthony Ryan, and is unlike any fantasy stories I’ve read, but is odd in that it can also be very similar. Much of the story takes place in a school, meant to teach its protagonist(s) their heroic trades. This is trope done to death in modern fantasy, but somehow continues to deliver – and pulls through well in Blood Song (albeit for different reasons than you’d altogether expect). This story has more than a few similarities to The Name of the Wind, but the primary comparison is simple – the narrative is told as a recounting of the protagonist’s life story so as to be documented by scribe. But more on that later. I mentioned it is dissimilar to any other fantasy series. Why? Blood Song is unique in that it is entirely devoid of any happiness.
Seriously, there isn’t a moment of happiness throughout the novel’s length. No brief lapse of “finally, something good comes to our protagonist,” no happy ending, anything. It’s a book lush with emotion, but entirely devoid of joy. There is only one moment the protagonist Vaelin Al Sorna claims to be happy, and even then as a reader we realize its so juxtaposed to the narrative it just cannot last. And of course it doesn’t. The story is one of pain, of pity, and of power, and there isn’t room for much else.
Vaelin Al Sorna is the son of the famed and feared ex-Battle Lord, and at the age of ten he is sent off to train as a brother of the Sixth Order, a sect of the “order” that teaches it’s members to hunt, fight, and kill for the protection of the Faith. He never sees his family again. Life in the school, in the order, is a hard one. He learns to kill at a very young age. His fellow order brothers die around him regularly – yet each time he loses another it seems just as terrible as the first. Each kill, each death weighing heavier than the last. It’s amazing he still has anything in him by the books end.
Unlike The Name of the Wind, it is a more realistic recounting of a personal tale. Instead of it being a scene for scene take, plenty of time passes between each scene in Blood Song. Often you’ll find the plot jumps full years ahead, to certain memories (always told chronologically). [EDIT: I contacted author Anthony Ryan on Twitter and he confirmed that the total time lapsed is roughly 15 years.] This isn’t a bad thing. It lends to the narrators credibility – and again the narrator is the protagonist. In present day he is on a shipping vessel, held prisoner for his crimes, and the many crimes of his father, on his way to face judgement. His scribe, to whom he tells his story, initially hates him, but by book’s end pities and defends him. We don’t have the same biases towards him that the other antagonists do, so we just end up feeling bad for him from the start. I’m sure Anthony Ryan is at this point sick to death with comparisons to The Name of the Wind, and although similarities can be made, the two books are fundamentally different types of novels. I find not many note that.
Now, up to this point all I’ve really brought to light is how utterly depressing the book was. But I can’t express how much I loved it’s dark, dirty, realness. If you want a properly gritty fantasy series, that isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire, look no further than Raven’s Shadow.
I thought one of the book’s strongest assets was its ability to really intrigue you about its magic system by not telling you anything about it whatsoever. We don’t really explore the “dark” as it’s unaffectionately called until very late in the novel, although it’s grazed upon throughout in passing brevity. Vaelin finds he is gifted with an extremely rare power, the “blood song,” which I expect we’ll explore in much more detail with future installments. Basically it allows him to hunt, communicate telepathically, and more – a compass that points to ones moral destiny. To say any more would rob you of some truly brilliant storytelling.
I also want to touch briefly on the “Faith.” I find it so interesting that Anthony Ryan chose to turn the usual tenets of fantasy religion on its head. Instead of the protagonist being either completely agnostic, or a god-fearing practicer, Blood Song follows a much more pagan group of individuals who worship ancestors and paints that as the norm – where as god worship is a foreign concept and looked down upon. A difference in belief not dissimilar to the difference between the Celts and Romans.
The book isn’t entirely perfect however. I’m impartial on books that purposely remove the “he said”, “she saids,” especially in lengthy conversations. This (particularly when listening to an audiobook with very little distinction in character voices and pitches) is very hard to follow. I also note that at some points in the book it switches from 1st and 3rd person at seemingly random intervals, although it is definitely supposed to be a 3rd person omniscient. Minor trifles with the writing. The story holds strong regardless.
If you’re a fan of Rothfuss or Sanderson, Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow (work that is admittedly very different) is another excellent fantasy adventure to add to your shelf that’ll take you down the path of the warrior, and a vicious, deadly, kind warrior at that. I give Blood Song a solid 9.0, and I can’t wait to revisit Raven’s Shadow in Tower Lord, the sequel that landed this year. Although I doubt it, here’s hoping Vaelin will catch a (minor) break.