Twitter gives me many things. It lets me engage with people I otherwise wouldn’t, fantasy fans from across the world; it gives me a peek into the daily life and thoughts of famous authors and actors and my other celebrity fascinations; and best of all, it connected me to Fantasy Book Critic, a really great site for any fantasy fan who wants recommendations and reviews of the latest books to hit the shelves.
One of the series that their reviews pointed me towards was Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow books. The first two have been released—Blood Song and Tower Lord—and the third is poised to come out soon. I admit it took me a while to get hooked onto the first, but once I passed a certain threshold, or once Ryan hit his stride as a world builder and storyteller (which takes about three-four chapters) it’s impossible to put the book down.
The Raven’s Shadow books are set in the Unified Realm, a land that vaguely resembles (you guessed it) medieval England in terms of its social and technological set up. Funnily enough, anthropologically speaking, it seems to mirror Olde Englande as well. The four fiefs that make up the Realm, long at war with one another and now yoked together by a conquering king, Janus, could find similarities with the various parts of Britain—notably Wales finding its mirror in Cumbrael, the southernmost fief. Rather than history, it’s a common faith that unites these fiefs, the Faith. The Faith is split into six Orders, scholars, healers, missionaries, soldiers, and so on. Our main character, Vaelin al Sorna, is a student of the Sixth—the military Order—when we meet him.
The book follows Vaelin’s journey through training by the Sixth Order, from his arrival at the Order house to the conclusion of his doomed campaign against the neighbouring Alpiran Empire. Vaelin, as might be guessed, is no ordinary boy. Not only is he the only son of the Battle Lord, King Janus’s military commander, but he also holds and works a power of his own, the blood song.
I don’t want to jump into summarizing the second book, because well, it’s not fun to spoil
things for you. Suffice to say, it’s a great follow up, with plenty of action that capitalizes on Ryan’s quite obviously amazing world building skills.
I read both these books in a near haze of astonishment. It was just so thrilling to find a new series to sink into, where the writer has obviously thought his story and his world through and is trying to put a new spin on an old plotline, where one brooding, martially-gifted hero saves the world. I really liked Vaelin, who was both Aragorn-like (brooding, distant, weighted by his past and his power), but also refreshingly young at times, like in his interactions with his Order brothers, or his fumbling feelings for Sherin, a healer from the medical Fifth Order.
Despite their overwhelmingly martial nature (there’s a lot of fighting, and I mean a lot), the Raven’s Shadow books are not without their share of romance, intrigue and moral dilemma. The female characters, in particular, are amazing. I LOVED Princess Lyrna, second in line to the throne, daughter of King Janus, and a mastermind. Lyrna spoke to me not only because she loved books and had a formidable memory, but also because she wasn’t afraid to use it, to charm her admirers while at the same time holding them at
bay with her inimitable wit and power. Almost in direct opposition to her gifts, but no less wonderful, was Reva from Tower Lord, a conflicted, devout warrior who has been raised to complete just one mission. As might be expected, fulfillment of that mission is not everything she dreamt it would be, leading her character along a path few would imagine. And you know what’s best about her? Ryan writes her as lesbian, and injects her with very real, very ‘real world’, self doubt and fear about the same. But it’s never presented as the be-all and end-all of her character arc, something that might very easily have happened in a less capable writer’s hands.
I cannot recommend this series enough. Ryan’s world is richly realized, his characters very well drawn. Now and then he falters in my Okay test (he uses the word ‘rogered’!), but I think I can forgive him, given how much I enjoyed his books and how I’m looking forward to the next. Queen of Fire, you can’t come soon enough!