✰ Book Review: Blood Song by Anthony Ryan


“The Order fights, but often it fights in shadow, without glory or reward. We have no banners.”

Vaelin Al Sorna’s life changes for ever the day his father abandons him at the gates of the Sixth Order, a secretive military arm of the Faith. Together with his fellow initiates, Vaelin undertakes a brutal training regime – where the price of failure is often death. Under the tutelage of the Order’s masters, he learns how to forge a blade, survive the wilds and kill a man quickly and quietly.

now his new skills will be put to the test. War is coming. Vaelin is the Sixth Order’s deadleist weapon and the Realm’s only hope. He must draw upon the very essence of his strength and cunning if he is to survive the coming conflict.

Yet as the world teeters on the edge of chaos, Vaelin will learn that the truth can cut deeper than any sword.

I can’t explain what it is that I love so much about coming-of-age stories. Growing up with a character, gaining friends, experience and scars – it’s amazing to see someone grow. That’s why I loved John Flanagan’s The Ranger’s Apprentice series, and it’s exactly the same reason I picked Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song from the shelves. (That, and my writer’s voice kept telling me to read some fantasy tales because that’s what I’m writing. Nothing beats researching through a hobby!) Also, one does not simply say no to that cover.

I just finished the sizeable book half an hour ago. It’s been many hours of sneaking pages during breakfast. Now here’s an honest review on a great book that I truly recommend.

Naturally, I did my research before picking up the book. The ratings on Goodreads were great, and I was ever more curious to discover that Anthony Ryan first published Blood Song as an indie writer. I went to the bookstore the next day and bought it, big doorstop of an epic novel.

My enthusiasm died a little at the slow start. Pages of a not-yet-relevant prologue stared up at me in blinding italicised font. A little overwhelming and I wasn’t a fan of it, but I’m glad I persisted. Unfortunately, these italicised interludes popped up several more times throughout the book, remaining my least favourite sections. That said, I appreciate their role in retrospective, the way everything neatly fell into place by the end.

But moving on – the story itself. Was. Brilliant. It was everything I set out to buy, and more. By the end, I was stunned by how… linearly complex the story turned out to be. Story arcs rose and lingered with satisfying pace. I love it when the author drops details early on that keeps me wondering, knowing it will play a bigger role later, until the moment comes in the final acts. In many instances, these revelations fall short with predictions. I was delighted to find that Ryan provided believable twists to most – not quite all, but definitely most – of these cases. Definitely made me late for uni more than once (okay, that’s partly my habit of aiming to always finish on a chapter; Blood Song had some loooooonnnggg chapters). I’m thrilled to continue the story in upcoming books of the trilogy, which can’t come out soon enough.

As in most fantasy novels, the world in Blood Song is a character in itself, supporting much of the plot with its politics and slight tinge of magic. I’ve always been bad with world-building, both writing and reading it, so I wasn’t surprised when Blood Song‘s world overwhelmed me at the start. The country in which the main character, Vaelin, lives, is comprised of four fiefdoms united under one king. Ryan built in a strong sense of history and especially religion, which is a key theme he mentions in book interviews. He did a good job pulling me into the realm, enough that I wasn’t jarred by the places I thought were a little underdeveloped.

For me, Blood Song – and most good stories – shines in characterisation. I’ve winced at books with protagonists I just didn’t like. Vaelin Al Sorna does not fall into that category. Ah, Vaelin. Naturally a splendid fighter, intelligent, says the right things at the right time, and stands firm in his beliefs. Everyone’s standard hero. But Vaelin doesn’t stop there. He’s far from perfect, his moral compass gets confused at times, he isn’t above swearing and losing his temper, and he’s always getting picked on by his temperamental war-horse. What I love most about Vaelin is that he grows and he changes. He doesn’t forget his experiences, good or bad, and he learns from them. He makes no excuses for himself. He’s a character I both love and fear, whose eyes I trusted to experience the story through. I have never trusted a character so much.

Here’s something the author had to say about Vaelin, taken from his interview with Upcoming4.me:

“There was a famous study produced by the US Department of Defence after World War II that indicated only ten percent of combat troops actively fired at the enemy, most were deliberately firing wide for the simple reason they didn’t want to kill anyone. I saw Vaelin as one of the ten percent, a group that has no compunction about taking a life in a worthwhile cause and no tendency towards post traumatic stress when the war’s over.”

Oh yeah. Vaelin Al Sorna is a badass.

It wouldn’t be fair to simply say this book had me hooked. I was there, and only the start of a new chapter could make me even think of putting it down for a break. That’s not to say it wasn’t without its faults. For one, Ryan’s grammar wasn’t always up to grade in some areas. More specifically, it felt like he had read somewhere that writers should avoid the semi-colon, and so did a find and replace search for all the semi-colons in his story, replacing them with a comma. It doesn’t impact the quality of the story at all but it did jar me from the flow at first, until I got used to it. As a whole, Ryan’s writing is not the most polished but he is nothing if not consistent. He knows his genre, did his research and it shows. Ryan’s writing has a formal tone that suits the manner in which his characters speak, that probably wouldn’t work as well elsewhere.

Reading this book taught me many things. Firstly, that writing fantasy is hard. Doing it well is a whole new level. From a writer’s perspective, I looked at Blood Song and imagined myself in Anthony Ryan’s shoes. All I saw were a mass of places where I would have gotten hopelessly stuck. I’m sure Ryan had his share of trouble, but he pulled through and we have an amazing novel to thank him for.

I picked Blood Song because I wanted to experience a fantasy story similar to my own: a journey. And some pleasant similarities I found indeed. It seems the idea of annexing nations into a larger power is a common one, as are militant backgrounds and, unsurprisingly, wars. I learned so much about brotherhood and politics. Wars especially. Gets me pumped to reflect and continue writing!

Finally, I learned to never slack off on research. It will show.

I really need to stop rambling before this poor excuse of a review puts you off a wonderful book – and I assure you, Blood Song by Anthony Ryan is a very good book. One not without its faults, but certainly one that many readers of adventure, fantasy and coming-of-age would enjoy.

Blood Song on Amazon and Goodreads.

Anthony Ryan has his own wordpress blog at http://anthonystuff.wordpress.com/ Be sure to drop by!

✰ Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

I picked this book up because one of my lecturers (an absolutely lovely woman) highly recommended it to us. After all, facial deformities like cleft palate are very relevant to our future speech pathologist careers. But my lecturer wanted us to read it because she had found it so touching that she and her young daughter cried reading it together. I’ve hardly met someone as sincere as this kind lady. I knew there had to be something about Wonder.

I guess I was expecting magic but I was disappointed. There was no fairytale magic, nor did I cry (I’m a real rock). Instead, I found a timeless book celebrating life’s imperfections, from biggest to smallest. The best part? It was all told from the perspectives of a few pseudo-naive yet hauntingly real children. Haunting because I can see it all happening as if I were back in the school playground, and it’s a wake up call when I look down at my eleven year old self and ask: “Would you have been brave enough to be Auggie’s first friend?” She hesitates and stares back cluelessly. It makes me smile sadly and pat her on the shoulder.

Wonder took me on a roller coaster ride, one more exciting than I’ve had in a while. I felt depressed, hopeful, afraid and envious. I winced. I laughed. I wanted to hug those little characters. I wanted to meet Auggie. Palacio told the story so realistically that it’s a book for all ages. Anyone can learn something from these kids – and despite the heavy issues surrounding them, those kids never felt like anything but kids to me. They’re at that special age of adolescence where they walk a tightrope between childhood and maturity, and Palacio keeps them in a precarious balance with amazing character voice.

Long story short, this book brought childhood and adulthood together for me. Children can be cruel and helpless. Yet they can also be more altruistic and open-minded than adults. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that we were those amazing little people once, and that they still exist around us everywhere.

This is the imperfect magic of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, and it has me entranced.

My favourite quote from the book:

Check out Wonder on Amazon, BookDepository and Goodreads. Maybe you’ll love it as much as I do :)

bird photograph credited to cargocollective  |  quote created by me on Pinwords

✎ The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

Many budding writers like to look at writing how-to books. It doesn’t mean we don’t know how to write at all. Rather, we want to see what the experts say; we want to compare, pick up shortcut tips and so on. We want answers mostly because we’re hesitant to accept the reality that there are no concrete answers in writing. It’s part of the learning process. There are hundreds of such guidebooks out there, from For Dummies books to Stephen King’s On Writing. Where do you even start in this giant forest?

Let me tell you about the first tree I sat under, the first book writing I picked up.

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

The Art of War for Writers

From the blurb:

“Strategies and tactics from the master novelist:
You’ll find tactics and strategies for idea generation and development, character building, plotting, drafting, querying and submitting, dealing with rejection, coping with unrealistic expectations, and much more.

If the title sounds familiar, that’s because James Scott Bell modelled his book after Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a good read that I also happen to have on my bookshelf. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is known for its practicality in many everyday life philosophies, not just war. The tactics are popularly applied to business, sports, psychology and more. This is what James Scott Bell’s guide tries to do. For writers.

The Art of War for Writers is not a comprehensive handbook into any particular area of writing – or even writing in general. Any novelist writing any genre for any purpose can pick up this book. The book touches on specific ideas very briefly, usually in less than three pages. You may even find some pieces of advice common knowledge and that is fine, because I’d take that as a sign that you’re on the same page as a professional when it comes to the basics.

So what is it good for?

The same thing as Sun Tzu’s text: strategies. Writing tips. The Art of War for Writers offers 77 tips split under three categories:

  1. Reconnaissance – Getting into the mindset of being a writer
  2. Tactics – Practical ideas and techniques for your writing
  3. Strategies – Advice on publishing, querying and finding agents

Bell’s writing voice is a great teacher. He has wit, honesty and authority. In the way of writing guides, there are many references to other texts. While this may seem like you’re holding a collection of examples from elsewhere, Bell makes it worthwhile by analysing the snippets in relation to the tactic he used it for. It broadened my horizons by giving me glimpses of different genres by different authors in different eras. However, it’s worth noting that the majority of examples come from literary fiction. Writers of fantasy and other genres may feel a little distanced at times, but there is much to be learned if you keep an open mind.

At just over 250 pages, the book is a fairly quick read. I finished it leisurely, taking in a two page tip or two with my meals. That’s the best part: you can flip to any page and start reading. Reread a helpful tip whenever you feel like it. When I needed motivation, I would choose anything from the Tactics and Reconnaissance sections and just read. It gave me something productive to do. Even if I didn’t end up writing (terrible, I know), I’d at least thought about it and was working that creative part of my brain.

The book is also beautifully designed with scarlet emblems on crisp white pages. I admit I love aesthetic things, so the very thought of a simple design won me over. The length of each tip is reasonably short and did a better job keeping me engaged than other guides with longer chapters. That said, you might find yourself craving a little more detail for some sections, like the publishing tips. But like I said, this is not supposed to be a comprehensive guide.

My only note is that Bell focuses strongly on the published life of an author. His stark frankness on marketing and lifestyle is appreciated and valuable, but to those who enjoy writing more leisurely, it might feel like overkill. I’d love to be published one day – it’s an ambition – but I’m happy to take it slow. I’d probably never quit my nonexistent day job as a student/future speech pathologist to write full time, but if I ever make it to the publishers, I’d be more than happy to take Bell’s advice to heart.

In summary, if you’ve been on the writing field for a long time and have done your research, you might find The Art of War for Writers too simple. Like I mentioned, its strength is not in being specific. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out; you can flip through it in your local bookstore and make that decision yourself. This goes for writers who have already decided their genres. But for those just beginning to invest in writing guides, I personally recommend The Art of War for Writers as a good place to start. Not just for its content, but also for the quality of Bell’s expertise; you’ll come across not-so-good guides in your lifetime and the best way to tell is to compare it to a good teacher. James Scott Bell is a good teacher.

That wraps up my first writing book review. I hope someone finds it useful!

munchkinwrites, signing out.