Two novels read this past month demonstrate an ongoing dichotomy in fantasy fiction. Anthony Ryan’s much heralded first novel, Blood Song, was a run away success as a self-published novel before it was bought by big publishing. It is, for all intents and purposes, a classic epic fantasy structurally reminiscent of Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind, with a texture more comparable to Brent Weeks’s Night Angel trilogy. Juxtapose it with Chris Willrich’s The Scroll of Years, which Scott Andrews described as Fritz Lieber meets Catherynne M. Valente, and the two faces of fantasy go to war.
But, the conflict doesn’t start or end with the fact that one echoes epic fantasy and the other a more literary style. Rather it’s a sense of going somewhere new, beyond traditional narratives that have for decades been a staple in the genre. A few sentences from Willrich’s blurb will begin to illustrate that,
Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone are a romantic couple and partners in crime. . .Now, they find themselves looking to get away, to the edge of the world, with Persimmon pregnant with their child.
Even without delving into the text itself, Scroll of Years has women in the spotlight who aren’t male simulacrums. Digging slightly into the text, these same women do stuff with intent that isn’t guided by the men around them. Later there’s a birth of that child, which forces Gaunt and Bone to reconcile their lives as rogues with family life. These are surface details only, but clearly demonstrate that Willrich has an idea that fantasy can do more than it has been. Absorbing his prose demonstrates it further,
In the process Bone clipped his nose upon one of the horizontal battens supporting the thick bamboo sails, slid to a hard landing upon the dark teakwood deck, where he rallied and rolled and danced his way through the crew, hard-looking men who were mostly of Qiangguo origin, though some hailed from spired Mirabad, torrid Serendip, or the mighty city-state Harimaupura.
A single sentence, followed by two just like it to make a paragraph, Willrich does not conform to the kind of clipped style, or windowpane prose, favored by the many successful fantasists. There is a rhythm to it, a steady beat that gets into the reader’s head, but it makes for a more challenging read. It calls the focus away from the narrative to the actual narration.
Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song is couched in more traditional terms. His protagonist, and narrator for most of the novel, Vaelin Al Sorna, is a nobleman’s son abandoned at the gates of the Sixth Order, a secretive military arm of the Faith. In the order Vaelin learns how to survive and to kill, makes some friends among his peers, and, eventually, goes to war.
The most interesting thing about Blood Song is that Ryan plays a bit with the narrative structure by adopting a frame story not dissimilar from the method employed by Rothfuss in his Kingkiller Chronicles,
Perhaps he needed to unburden himself before his end, leave a legacy of truth so he would be known to history as more than just the Hope Killer. . .Finally as the sun began to dip toward the horizon and the shadows grew long, I said, “So tell me.”
As that passage indicates, the frame story is told from the first person perspective of the man recording Vaelin’s story, but most of Blood Song is in the third person from Vaelin’s point of view. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that the narrative Vaelin is relating in the frame story is not the story the reader is reading. In the Kingkiller Chronicles, Rothfuss plays a similar game. Kvothe narrates the story in first person as he tells his tale to Chronicler and Bast. The reader, not being aware of the real story, is left wondering at Kvothe’s veracity. It augments the frame story because the two listeners find themselves asking the same questions as the reader.
Blood Song attempts a similar feat, but fails. The reader has the whole story, making the purpose of a frame entirely moot. Had the novel simply been told in a linear fashion the reader’s perception would not be altered. The result is a paint by numbers fantasy of the tortured (and thoroughly badass) youth sacrificing his personal desires for the good of others. What has the potential to be something interesting, instead becomes something most genre fans can recite by wrote.
Of the two, it would seem that Scroll of Years deserves a stronger recommendation. And it does, at least for those fantasy readers who have found themselves treading the same ground far too often. But, it cannot be denied that Blood Song possesses the stronger narrative. For readers who have not experienced the kind of in-depth, violent, and male-centric narrative it offers, there will be much to laud. It contains the kind of drive that some authors seem to deploy innately, as though Blood Song were meant to be devoured in a single day, even with a daunting length that exceeds 600 hardbound pages.
Scroll of Years has few of those qualities, often coming across like a series of stitched together stories within stories, episodic side bars, and unfamiliar themes. While the preference should be to see more novels trying to push boundaries, it is incumbent to remember the power of simple narrative–the effectiveness of tropes and meeting expectations. In the end, Scroll of Years is a novel for the experienced genre reader. It’s a book for those who can appreciate the fresh perspective Willrich brings, who are no longer in search of a crescendo driven narrative.
Where Willrich seems to write with a sense of self-awareness, Ryan writes with carefree passion ignorant that anyone might be watching. Perhaps also unaware of the fact he’s retreading ground done by his predecessors time and again. To put it more bluntly, Anthony Ryan writes with his heart and Chris Willrich with his head. There’s an audience for both, but it seems unlikely that Scroll of Years will find the larger one.