Usually I buy a book for some rational reason: I enjoyed a previous book by that author, or I like the sample, or there's a really intriguing premise to draw me in. This one is different. I bought this because at the time it had 44 reviews on Amazon, and every last one of them is a 5*. That's either an author with a great many friends and relations (or sockpuppets, maybe), or it's one brilliant book. Now, I hardly ever find a book I regard as outstanding enough to merit a 5* review, so that's a bit of a challenge, it seems to me. Nothing is really that good, surely?
Well, OK, I confess I did read the sample before I stumped up the cash, as I always do, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prologue is not merely literate, but a powerful piece of writing, more than good enough to draw me in. The conceit of a famous (or perhaps infamous) warrior telling his life story is not a new one, but the character of Vaelin al Sorna is compelling right from the start.
The story proper begins with Vaelin's father leaving him as a child at the House of the Sixth Order to be trained as a brother there, one of those who fights to defend the religion of the country. Again, this kind of boyhood training is not at all an original idea, but the way the boys develop camaraderie and survive (or not) the various tests required of them is well done. There is also the backdrop of Vaelin's father, himself a famous warrior, his dead mother, as well as politics - the king and his family.
But the real theme of the book is faith - the (always capitalised) Faith of Vaelin's country, which is held to be the one true faith. Standing against that are the Deniers who want to live according to a different faith or none, perhaps, but are hounded down, tortured and killed for their beliefs. There is also magic out there somewhere (the Dark, as it's called here), and that too is forbidden.
As the plot progresses, Vaelin and his friends undergo the various tests that are part of their training, and this could, in other hands, have been boring or predictable. Not so here. Every time, something unexpected and dramatic happens, yet it never feels contrived. One example: the final test involves Vaelin and his friends each taking on three armed men at once, in a kill-or-be-killed fight. Since we know that Vaelin survives (he is retelling his life story, after all), there is no tension at all in the fight itself. However, there's a twist in there (which I won't reveal) which makes it extremely dramatic. Time after time, the author managed to surprise me - sometimes it's a reveal about Vaelin's family or the political situation, sometimes it's a character detail, sometimes it's a touch of magic, and many of these moments are spine-tinglingly good.
The growth of Vaelin (and his brother warriors) is totally believable, as is the parallel growth of Vaelin's reputation as a leader. I've read other books which chronicle the development of legendary figures, but I've never seen it done so well. Vaelin gradually becomes the man he was destined to be. Slowly the scope of the book opens out to encompass the political sphere of the king, his son and daughter and the senior courtiers, and eventually moves out to other parts of the realm, the front line for the Sixth Order, where the war against those who refuse to accept the Faith is taking place.
The world building is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book. The setting, both geographically and politically, is decidedly sketchy, and there were moments when I wasn’t quite sure exactly where we were. Sometimes when times or distances or locations were given in some detail, I still had trouble tallying that to the map. Descriptions were brief and not always particularly useful. I rarely knew, for instance, what characters were wearing. And the magic system, such as it is, is so vague as to be not much more than a plot contrivance, especially Vaelin’s oh so convenient ‘blood song’ instinct, which helpfully prevents him from doing the wrong thing, warns him of danger and always leads him in the right direction. But there may be more detail in later books, and perhaps it’s in the nature of magic to seem a little convenient.
The sudden shift to the invasion of the southern empire is rather jarring, and the battle with the so-called Hope was fairly incredible to me. This is someone whose death completely devastates his followers, yet he’s able to move about freely on an enemy infested battlefield? I don’t think so. Deeply symbolic political leaders don’t actually fight in person. After this point the story becomes rather disjointed, and for the first time it seemed that the needs of the plot were driving things forward. There's always a moment when the author has to start arranging the pieces to lead towards the climax, but it shouldn't really be as clunky as this.
Some minor issues. There are a couple of eye-rolling moments - the whole knife to the throat of the woman situation is incredibly hackneyed. There are several places, in fact, where women need to be rescued as a demonstration of Vaelin's manly skills and compassion. None of the female roles are well developed, but that's inevitable in a book focusing on an all-male celibate order, and there are signs of depth to come. Princess Lyrna, in particular, intrigues me. And there are numerous silly typos. But none of these flaws impacted overmuch on my enjoyment of the book.
The book works pretty well on every level - the basic story, the depth of the characters, the gradual revealing of key background information and the transformation of Vaelin himself from child to leader to legend. The character of Vaelin is beautifully complex; on the one hand, he has his mother's devoutness and desire to do the right thing, on the other his father's loyalty and fighting ability, and he also has the intelligence to see beyond them. And although we never see inside any other head but Vaelin's, his charisma is obvious too. Underneath it all, there's the discussion of faith - of what people believe, and the fanaticism it can lead to. I very much liked that Vaelin's people believe only in the Departed (the dead), and it's a fundamental tenet that there are no gods, while other societies believe in one god or many or other things altogether.
It would be easy to compare this with Patrick Rothfuss's book 'The Name of the Wind', also about a legendary figure telling his life story to a scribe, also focused on a warrior's growth to adulthood and the beginnings of the fearsome reputation. But where Rothfuss inflates his story to such an extent that it often sags, Ryan keeps 'Blood Song' taut more or less from start to finish. However, he doesn't have Rothfuss's gloriously lyrical writing style, and the ultimate depth of both books can only be judged when the two series are complete.
The ending, when it comes, is a bit of a dog's breakfast. The actual duel, the focus of the book right from the start, is quite nicely done, even if totally implausible (but this is fantasy, it's allowed to be implausible). However, the whole fairly dry military campaign, the unlikely romance, the obvious contrivances to produce a resonant moment later, the frequent time-hopping, and in particular, the author's habit of half hinting and half hiding key facts to reveal them with a flourish later, all of it just got tedious for me. Authorial tricks are a useful technique when used sparingly, but this was way too heavy handed. The final chapters are just a mish-mash of loose ends being tied up with bows on, and there was no emotional resonance, despite the deaths of named characters. However, the quality of the earlier sections, the underlying depth of the themes of faith, loyalty and doing the right thing, together with the compelling character of Vaelin himself, manage to raise this to four stars.
So what's with all those 5* reviews? I've never yet come across a book that was almost universally liked; it's always a matter of personal taste, after all, so most books have a spread of ratings. The number of reviews on Amazon is now up to 189, of which 179 are 5*, and the majority are only a few lines long, very gushing and the person has very few or no other reviews. There were 100 reviews added in June alone. Are they all genuine? Possibly. Could a mix of sockpuppetry, bought reviews and lots of friends produce the same result? Absolutely. But there’s no way of knowing. All I can say is that if there was any gaming involved, it was unnecessary; the book is certainly good enough to stand on its own merits.