In a time where people are chomping at the bit for George R.R. Martin’s next installment in A Song of Ice and Fire, there’s no shortage of epic fantasy novels to choose from. Anthony Ryan’s debut novel Blood Song has seemingly come out of nowhere, and it’s easy to see why so many of Martin’s readers are devouring it: Blood Song feels a lot like the continuing adventures of Jon Snow. An estranged father drops off his only son to be raised at a sacred order. We follow young Vaelin Al-Sorna through his training to become a brother of the sixth order as he survives desolate landscapes, discovers the secrets behind his father and mother’s romance (as well as his father’s infidelities), foils surprise attacks and assassinations, finds forbidden love, discovers dark prophecies and ancient evils, and becomes the warrior leader we all knew he’d end up becoming. There’s even a giant wolf or two.
For some, that’ll be enough. The same friend who finally talked me in to giving A Game of Thrones a chance five years ago hounded me to read Blood Song for about a month because (like the titular song for our young hero) he couldn’t get it out of his head. And I can see why – Ryan definitely knows how to tell a story. But it’s a story most of us have heard many times before.
For me, Blood Song is a perfectly adequate Epic Fantasy that made me realize how bored I am with Epic Fantasy in general. It has an Epic Fantasy Greatest Hits vibe going for that you’d expect to hear covered at your local karaoke tavern. And I get the comfort and enjoyment out of that – really, I do. Blood Song is not badly written (though I did feel the final chapter was a bit too much monologuing and revelations) and Steven Brand’s excellent narration made listening relatively enjoyable. But it’s like a Nickleback song – you’ve heard it before, and you’ve probably heard it done better. Maybe that’s part of the appeal – there aren’t any real surprises here. Our hero is always in danger, except you never actually believe he’s going to lose. The setting is typical European medieval. In the end, Blood Song is not a bad book, but it is predictable and safe. This stands in stark (heh) comparison to Martin – an author who may take a long time to get there, but one I feel like manages to surprise me by his choices.
I don’t doubt Anthony Ryan is a talented author, and Steven Brand is a very gifted narrator. But Blood Song made me realize I’ve been wandering the desert that’s become Epic Fantasy for way too long, and I’m craving something new at the next oasis.