Sunday, April 20, 2014

Another Martin Lite consumed

All right, second Easter mini-trip over. High up in the mountains, the silence and relative isolation makes a man read more (and wish to have Internet access), and so I finished Anthony Ryan's Blood Song.

A long time ago, while waiting for A Feast for Crows, I began to feel the need to read more stuff that was as great as George R.R. Martin's books. I tried a few books but they didn't grab me. I thought I could never read a thing again. And it sure took a while. Eventually, I was able to enjoy other works even though they didn't hit me the way Ice & Fire did. In the wake of Martin, more fantasy books were published that were called "gritty", an adjective that basically told you 'If you like A Game of Thrones, you might like this'. That's how I found Joe Abercrombie's The First Law. In between the tropes of the genre Abercrombie added black humor and also kept his fantasy more medieval than fantastical. I found Patrick Rothfuss and his The Name of the Wind. He combined a coming-of-age-tale and a host of other genre tropes with a deep point of view that felt vividly real. Some books didn't make good on their promises. Steven Erikson first confused the hell out of me, until I realized he was a big deal and perhaps even a deal bigger than Martin himself, in many ways (but not all ways). New fantasy authors gave us worlds that felt realistic and lived-in, without the sparkling elves; The Steel Remains, Throne of the Crescent Moon, The Winds of Khalakovo, The Dragon's Path, The Painted Man... and I'd argue that Blood Song belongs to this latter group of novels; shorter than the usual fantasy doorstopper, with a small(ish) cast of characters, with a stream-lined, simple-to-follow story in a world more medieval than fantastical. I've enjoyed all these novels, and I enjoyed Blood Song too, for what it is; but I never fell into it, eager to read the next chapter, the next paragraph, the next line. They are all Martin-lite if I can use that description.

In the case of Blood Song, this is especially apt, as the author does not only mimic Martin's style, but, if you squint, the plot bears a number of resemblances as well - in Blood Song, we have a group of boys who come together at an ancient institution with strict rules. Here they learn to master a variety of weapons and other skills which they will use to defend the realm. Night's Watch or Sixth Order? The magic is at first subdued, but becomes more prevalent; there are lords and knights and battles and intrigues galore; there is a magical wolf; there is conflict of faith; in other words, with so many fantasy novels out by now lightly touched by Martin's medieval fantasy, it becomes harder to seem original, and as such, Blood Song feels, indeed, like Martin-lite. And it's a great way to pass the time until the next Martin novel. At times, I really enjoyed the book. The beginning and the end were the strongest, with the middle section almost making me quit. There's a particularly long chapter in there which broke the otherwise efficient pace of the story which was hard to get through - it just wasn't interesting enough.

Another reason to call it 'Martin-lite' is because the author never takes the brutal realism of Martin, the perversions, the betrayals - into the uncomfortable. Some blood is shed, and some horrible crimes are committed, but it feels mostly PG all through. Like a lighter version of Martin, right? The characters in the book are also "light" in the sense that most of them feel a little shallow, but enjoyable enough to read. Most characters are also blessed with forgettable names that don't really stand out. That's just a nitpick, really. Some characters deserved more words, others got too many.

I haven't read any reviews of this book yet, so I am curious to see what other people think. I assume, from seeing average scores at Amazon and Goodreads, that people are generally positive to this novel. I am, too, but only in the sense that it was a nice but ultimately forgettable side-adventure, the way I felt about the aforementioned titles as well. Perhaps this one, along with The Throne of the Crescent Moon for its colorful setting and The Steel Remains for its humor, was slightly better than ye average somewhat-gritty fantasy debut of the last decade. The author, of whom I know nothing (really, I wasn't aware of the existence of this novel until I was recommended it), has a non-descript prose (which suits the story fine), and is generally good at conveying whatever he needs to convey - I found some of the characters rather flat or uninteresting, and certain events I didn't quite get a grip on; he was at his best during action scenes, in my opinion. I'd guess any fan of Ice & Fire would enjoy this little romp, but I don't see it as the Next Big Thing. Did it entertain me enough to pre-order the sequel, Tower Lord, to be published in July? I am still on the fence. The book has (fortunately) a decent enough closure; there are definitely some mysteries left for the author to use as a dangling carrot, and the main character Vaelin is enjoyable enough to read more of (he's a mix of Jon Snow, Conan the Barbarian, Logen Ninefingers and Aragorn if that makes any sense, I suppose it doesn't), but it's not a must (I never continued, as an example, Daniel Abraham's The Dagger and the Coin saga of which I read book one, The Dragon's Path - but now that I'm thinking about it, I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn't finish that series if it is indeed finished).

Still, realizing I sound negative, I'd say Blood Song is a more than decent debut, and one of the better new fantasy novels I've read. I can't really pinpoint exactly what I feel it lacks; other reviews will probably be more enlightening on that matter (or what makes it good, for that matter). One of these days I am going to rank all the fantasy novels I've read (assuming I can remember them all). In one way, Blood Song lacks a certain spark, a certain uniqueness if you will; it could have happened in any low fantasy setting kind of. At the same time, as I was reading, I was entertained and invested. Sigh, a hard book to try to review.

Tomorrow it is time for another Game of Thrones episode! I also just checked the Not A Blog for the latest updates on The Winds of Winter (yup, that was sarcasm) and noticed Martin had published a link to a photo gallery of author hands showing their writing advice. I scrolled through, wondering what Martin had on his hand but of course he wasn't there, which is all kinds of funny since his mantra is "I enjoy having written." So he links to all these great motivational quotes written on authors' hands and his hand isn't even there (probably covered in chili-con-queso). Sorry, that was an old-fashioned cheap dig. Sometimes, the irony becomes too much to bear and a man must go below the belt.

Anyway, if I had to give Blood Song a score between 1 and 10, where 1 is The Fifth Sorceress, the worst fantasy novel I have attempted to read, 5 is an entertaining but badly written licensed fantasy novel, and 10 is, well unattainable because there might always come something better but for this purpose let's say it's A Storm of Swords, I would give it... 7.58.

Having giving it some more thought as I was writing this, I think I have officially decided I will follow along with Tower Lord. I was adamant about following Abercrombie too, and he just got better and better. And this is a really good starting point and it seems I don't have to wait five years for the continuation. Ahem. Maybe Martin should write on his hand, "How about a two-year cycle at the max?"

Speaking of scores, I wrote an article called Scoring the Game for Tower of the Hand the other day. Enjoy (or not, entirely your decision).

(Do note that they fricking re-published that Fifth Sorceress tripe! I'm officially flabbergasted. Seriously: Stay away or read it because you get a kick out of reading the utterly loathsome) The Fifth Sorceress, incidentally, I believe was the first novel I ordered from Amazon after I had finished Martin and wanted more awesomeness. It's a wonder I'm still reading after that.

Allow me to quote this fantastic review from user deprived at Amazon:

Just these two lines should provide all the proof you need.

Wigg went on. "This passageway is the last defense before entering Shadowood proper, and if anyone of unendowed blood or without the benefit of time enchantments enters this tunnel, they are recognized by the incantations we left behind, and immediately killed. Only gnomes are exempt."

"By the way," the old wizard(Wigg)asked of the gnome. "How is it that you can traverse this tunnel without being of endowed blood?"

I think those that gave the book 2 or more stars were being overgenerous. Those that gave it 4 or 5 stars would seem to be crackheads. I found this crud in a bargain bin, after having read 1/3rd of it, I knew why. This is a truly atrocious piece of crap.
I lol'd.

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