The Raven’s Shadow trilogy is a fantasy series by Anthony Ryan. The first book is Blood Song (first published in 2011), followed by Tower Lord (2014) and Queen of Fire (2015). The books chronicle the life of Vaelin Al Sorna, the son of the King’s famed and feared Battle Lord, after he is severed from his family and deposited into the Sixth Order. A religious sect dedicated to transforming children into elite and deadly warriors. They are bound to the tenants of their faith, and famed for their prowess.
The brothers of the Sixth Order are wherever the fighting is the hottest and wherever the deadliest foes threaten the realm. They are trained to show up, outclass, and annihilate foes – then mic-drop on the way out. This series delivers.
Blood Song is the academy book of the series. The formative years. One of the best of its kind. Blood Song delves into the training of Vaelin and his peers as they are moulded into men who will be the vanguard in combat and conflict throughout the realm. It is a coming of age story, and it is a vital book. It forms the foundation, the relationships, and the personalities that prop up and propel the story over the course of the trilogy.
It is amazing. I loved the trilogy, but Blood Song is something special. I’m going to keep this a spoiler free review, as usual, so Blood Song (Book One) will be the book I focus on here. So, what does the synopsis say?
We have fought battles that left more than a hundred corpses on the ground and not a word of it has ever been set down. The Order fights, but often it fights in shadow, without glory or reward. We have no banners.
Vaelin Al Sorna’s life changes forever 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 deadliest 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.
Great synopsis, right? If you aren’t already curious, then I’m sincerely concerned for you. Truth be told, though, the synopsis is only the faintest glimmer of what awaits you. Read on, friend!
The academy theme, as I mentioned above, is prevalent in Blood Song. This theme is something I wrote about in my review of Dawn of Wonder, too. It’s a fantasy norm for a reason. It works, and it forms an incredibly powerful foundation to a story when executed well.
This theme leads to an epic arc of development for the characters, while also forging an essential rapport with the reader. We meet the characters while they are young, vulnerable and innocent. We observe their development and watch as they grow. We get invested. We connect to them. It consumes us.
Vaelin is a quiet, bright and observant kid. He is absurdly talented in the practical arts of war, and he has a keen and oddly mature emotional intelligence. He parrots the doctrines of the Sixth Order and the tenants of the Faith, but there is a distance in him. He conforms to his habitat, with the outward appearance of a perfect pupil (or maybe acolyte?), but he keeps his own council. There are reasons for this, but I won’t reveal anymore here. Suffice it to say, that while certain traits in Vaelin are perfect, he has his share of flaws. Not with a sword though. Vaelin is a killing machine.
(Quick aside: I wrote a bit of a rant after finishing this series about the unfortunate prevalence in fantasy books for people to equate a precocious/genius type protagonist with a ‘Mary-Sue’. Vaelin Al Sorna is the reason this label is applied to Blood Song. You can read it here if you like. I was grumpy that day.)
Vaelin’s band of brothers in the Order forge ties that echo throughout the trilogy. Blood Song is singularly responsible for establishing them successfully. The brothers all have their particular perfections and flaws. Their unique talents bring them together and forge them into a cell of warriors that are equal to any task or challenge.
Their training and development is brutal, harrowing and thoroughly entertaining. It’s all to wring out the very best of them. To extract every drop of potential. Anthony Ryan will make you care, and he will break your heart.
The narrative style is similar to the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss: namely there’s a narrator detailing the story as a part of a meta-narrative. The narrator is himself a character in the books, but he positions himself as the storyteller, delving into the history of a nation at a certain place and at a certain time. His story is compelling in its own right, and it heralds the descent into Vaelin’s story. I found myself looking forward to each ‘Part’ break of the books to catch up on his story, before becoming immersed again in Vaelin’s.
The books are heavily concerned with duty, power, sacrifice and loss. The book introduces threats and forces of opposition that gradually widen the worldview and increase the stakes for main cast. Anthony Ryan is sparing in his measured dissemination of information.
Ryan leaves us scratching away at the mysteries that pop up throughout the story, while tossing out enough morsels to keep us interested. I found it to be exceptionally well paced and compulsively readable. It kept me turning pages, devouring significant portions of the books in single sittings, ignoring things like life and adulthood.
The magic in the world of the Blood Song and the Raven Shadow trilogy is unique and intriguingly varied, too. Rather than there being a singular source for magic that defines and constricts its practice, Anthony Ryan instead introduces a ‘skill’ notion of magic.
Basically, people who manifest power in the books have certain abilities. Depending on the power, that use can be singular or broad in its practical applications. These abilities range from the basic and benign to abilities that approach the level of godhood in their potential. It makes for some epic moments. The system and the possibilities are incredibly cool.
Blood Song and the Raven Shadow trilogy are incredible. These books are up there with the best in the genre. It’s definitely one of the best trilogies I’ve read in a number of years. If you love fantasy, you owe it to yourself to experience these books. If you love academy books, if you love coming of age stories and, hell, if you just love a great story, you need these books in your life.
Blood Song is without doubt the best of the trilogy, but Tower Lord and Queen of Fire are fantastic books on their own. After reading Blood Song, I challenge you to resist reading the rest. Spoiler: You won’t be able to, and you won’t mind.
If you loved Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw or the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss you have to check this series out. Raven’s Shadow is filled with fantastic characters, triumph, amazing moments and huge satisfying payoffs – it is also heart rending, tragic and sad. It’s a great mix of the two, each balanced against the other. It’s a great series and I can’t recommend it enough, you really must give it a chance.