Sunday, September 09, 2012

A Review of Blood Song (Raven's Shadow #1)

Having been through more fantasy and science fiction series than any functioning adult should be comfortable admitting, I am leery of writing anything overly adulatory about the first novel of a series, especially when that novel is not merely good but quite possibly great.

This is because first-in-a-series novels are like first dates. On the one hand, you can end up meeting the woman of your dreams, whom you will marry and who will bear you a surprising number of children, with whom you will live in domestic bliss until the day you wake up and find at least some of your children with knives and shurikens at your throat and you're surprised because you used to hide those behind the liquor cabinet and then you smell their breath and realize they got into that, too.

On the other, it can be that sparkling first date that rapidly degenerates into forced picnics and awkward silences because the girl's roommate is a closet lesbian who is repressing her feelings because she's not sure if this is a phase and she doesn't want to upset her parents but she knows she's attracted to her roommate and so she tells her that you look like a child molester and once the seed is planted you can't even look at a panel van again, while she's around anyway.

I stress that I've never dated a girl whose roommate was, to the best of my knowledge, a closet lesbian.

With those caveats out of the way, before I say things like "this is one of the best novels I've ever read," let's get the downsides out of the way.

First, Anthony Ryan, the author of Blood Song, seriously could have used a copy editor, and just a little bit, a regular editor. The prologue drags. I understand there's a lot of setup here, but half of it isn't strictly necessary. The copyediting for what I presume was a self-edited piece is incredible, but there are a lot of homophone slips, enough that your eye doesn't pass over them like an angry wife when you're hung over and hiding under the blankets, but instead trips like an angry wife when she tries walking over the blankets and you're hung over and hiding under them on the floor.

Second, it's bad enough that Ryan uses that obnoxious British spelling for everything -- I mean, he's a Brit, so insisting on using spellings that the Oxford English Dictionary insists are wrong just because Americans use the right ones is a thing -- but he writes not like a Brit but a Canadian. It's a voice that sounds more American than British, which means I've probably insulted the poor fellow at least twice in this paragraph as far as he's concerned, but it's disconcerting to read American- or Canadian-style writing and stumble not just over "realise" but the word "shambolic," which is amazingly a word, albeit a ridiculous one.

Third, and this is actually a backhanded compliment, this is such a complete book that I'm not sure how he gets through the next one. It doesn't feel like Ryan is forcing a sequel, not yet anyway, but instead like this is such a tidy, neatly-wrapped book that it's hard to imagine what he'll prattle on about for 200,000 words, which his blog tells me is coming.

Fourth, having the obviously-Asian guy come from a distant land that uses Chinese symbolism and archetypes is not just a cliche, it is the only weak element of characterization in the novel.

Now, for the rest.

Blood Song is one of the best books I've ever read. I have a pantheon of twenty books/compendia ranging from classics of literature to autobiography to history to science fiction and fantasy to tragedy, an eclectic mix until you realize I'm likely disturbed at some level. I don't think a book has cracked into these ranks since law school. I think this one did. It is not just the typical coming-of-age-for-the-world-shaking-boy/young man. It is a deeply personal tragedy in which the world crumbles again and again around the protagonist starting at the beginning of his second decade of life and apparently continuing into the end of his third.

That's a lot of time to suffer time and again.

What struck me, though, was not just the grimly inspiring story, but the level of detail, understanding, nuance, and richness woven through the book. Lest I be accused of writing a high school book report in the ten minutes before class starts (a sin of which I was guilty at one time), let me expand on that. Imagine writing a story in which the whole world has a rich history, a cast of characters who forged that world within living memory, and a square area of a few thousand miles. Then open up that world into a part of a bigger one, and then collapse it into a tiny one.

Imagine trying to do all of this through two main voices and a host of actually-differentiated supporting voices. Imagine trying to tell that story without taking only fifty pages of sparse notes or three thousand pages of tedium. Imagine writing a Christian history of Christianity but with pagans and agnostics as the Christians and with a polytheistic Muslim sultanate to the South.

As someone who has spent, off and on, the last twenty years of his life fleshing out a handful of stories in his mind about a world he created for an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition forever!) campaign, and who has subsequently tried to finish a single novel, just one, I am here to tell you that this is an insanely difficult balancing act. The fact that Ryan has managed such a trick without editors or other apparent support structure is not just interesting or impressive, it is more or less unbelievable.

One thing that struck me as I finished this book and as at least three children were screaming at me (this was at a little after 2 a.m., so I was having a comparatively easy night) was that Ryan managed to make every twist and turn in the novel not a gimmick or tiring cliche, but rather an internally consistent and explicable revelation to a sadly-limited narrator. This may be the most impressive trick of all -- it's one thing to spend years writing an intricate novel and making it readable, it's another altogether to engage a reader's suspension of disbelief and have it remain a vital and living thing as you jar it repeatedly through your work.

I have worked hard to avoid spoilers here and I will continue to do so. Suffice it to say that while I felt the novel's penultimate chapter predictable at some level when I started the novel, I was struck by how Ryan had made the protagonist's resolution of the surrounding plot actually in some dispute by the end. You'll see what I mean, if you read this.

Which, incidentally, you really should. It's cheap at three times the price and twice the time involved to read.