So it appears that my dalliance with fantasy novels is not yet complete. But this is new for me – a new book! Not an old book I remember as a teenager.
What do I think of the current state of fantasy writing?
Let me talk about character agency. Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song is a novel which shows its protagonist, Vaelin, as he makes his way through the training process of the Sixth Order. It’s all suitably dramatic and violent, and by the end of his training is a warrior and a commander, and several of his friends have failed to make the grade and have died. Life is harsh, and unfair, and he belongs to a noble house, and various plot-related things occur. All of this is fine, and I expected it (or something like it), and was not disappointed to learn slowly about Vaelin’s world and the culture of his people.
What’s less interesting, however, is the odd tendency Vaelin has where, whenever a suitably dangerous event is going to occur – and they occur often, mind – he has a feeling that kind of alerts him to the danger and nudges him in the right direction in order to avoid it. Not always, but most of the time, this occurs, and he listens to his feeling and wins the day.
Later in the book he begins to harness this ability – his blood song – and it starts to become really clear what the feelings are telling him to do. Now, he is able to tell if someone is being deceitful, or if he should continue a conversation or leave, or if there is danger in a raised weapon or not.
I believe that Ryan is trying to build this character’s power in some way, that he will become some sort of magic user in the world. That’s fine. But the method he has chosen does not build upon Vaelin’s power but instead completely destroys it. Why?
Character agency. Vaelin no longer does what he wants to do, or what he thinks is best, and instead follows the feelings he has. These feelings are both sufficiently nebulous that Ryan explains them as, well, feelings, while simultaneously being specific enough that Vaelin is able to navigate some rather treacherous (plot) waters.
But it’s not Vaelin that’s doing this. It’s the feelings. And so, each time this occurs, Vaelin becomes less impressive because he isn’t doing anything other than follow a set path. He is like a child tracing his finger along a road on a map. It doesn’t mean the child has mapped the route from city to city, it just means he did what he was told and followed along.
Vaelin becomes increasingly pathetic when the tone of the writing suggests that I, the reader, am supposed to find him increasingly powerful and important. I didn’t, and I doubt I will, and the last 150 pages of this book have taken away any desire I might have had to read more of his work. It’s a real shame, and the use of this feeling suggests that Ryan is quite unaware of this sense of agency and how it works. I worry that, in the second book (which has been published reasonably recently), Vaelin’s powers will continue to increase, and the reader will be forced to watch this fellow being lead around by the nose like a bull, going from place to place and stumbling through into grand adventures not because of his wit, or prowess, or skill, or ability, but because his feeling says duck at 10:59am in the morning, and so he does, and so the dagger flies overhead and he is unharmed.
The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read this year.