Author – Pamela Freeman
Pages: 480 pages
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: April 7, 2008
A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about how I was feeling over saturated with Epic Fantasy. You know the kind â€“ evil forces, semi-medieval world, lots of horses and swords and even a smattering of magic thrown in for good measure. It’s the kind of story I grew up on, but it just wasn’t floating my boat anymore.
Pamela Freeman was one of several authors to respond to the article and she had some interesting things to say about her first foray into adult fiction and why she’s trying to make a difference in the Epic Fantasy sub-genre:
I did a lot of reading in the genre for a doctorate, and I found that I was getting jaded, too – when I looked at why, I realised that a lot of secondary world writers were setting up the world and the magic in the first book, and then just letting the story/politics/war run to its conclusion, without revealing anything new. As a reader, I wasnâ€™t getting a constantly renewed sense of wonder about the world, and since I read epic fantasy as least as much for the world as for the plot, I was getting bored.I kept wanting someone else to read the third book for me and just tell me what happened. I am trying hard not to let that happen in the Castings Trilogy, but maybe that means Iâ€™m slowing the plot downâ€¦nothingâ€™s simple. The great advantage epic fantasy has is that itâ€™s – epic; like Tolkien, I wanted to try my hand a really long story
Curious to see if Freeman could back up her words, I tossed Blood Ties into my backpack along with several other novels for the cross country journey. Could Freeman really be tackling Epic Fantasy in a new way?
The answer’s more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Freeman started in the business writing YA (young adult) fiction, a genre which is dreadfully under appreciated by many adults, and Blood Ties is her first foray into the world of adult fiction. A lot of fantastic novels have been written for a YA audience (The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin, just to name a few), and the YA experience was valuable to Freeman. She has a simple way of handling information and doles out an easy to understand, but still evocative world. Presumably because of her experience with YA, Freeman’s novel has an easy to follow, if slightly obvious, prose and this allows her to focus less on the language and more on the things that really matter: story and character.
These, however, are a bit of a mixed bag.
The novel, which reads like George R.R. Martin-lite, is split up into three main point-of-view characters (Ash, an assassin in training, more or less; Bramble, a wild child who has the miraculous ability to hop on a horse for the first time and become a masterful rider in a matter of days; Saker, a mysterious enchanter who fills what I could only assume was the role of main antagonist), each with their own stories going on independently of each other until, predictably, their paths meet up late in the novel. These three are interesting enough (Ash, especially), but where the novel really shines are in the vignettes scattered throughout the novel written by those whose lives are touched by the three main characters. The secondary characters, whose chapters are written in first person, have a sense of life and identity that I felt Saker, Ash and Bramble lacked. Freeman does a commendable job of using the prose to give each of these characters a distinctive sense of voice â€“ they all tell their own stories in different ways, and Freeman uses subtle changes of style to define each of them. I’m curious whether the novel wouldn’t have been better off having the three main protagonists written in first person, as well.
The major issue with the novel, though, is the clash between tone and content. In an attempt to make a mark in a publishing world full of Richard Morgans, George R.R. Martins, Joe Abercrombies, Matt Stovers and Paul Kearneys, Freeman injects her world with a ‘gritty’ dose of murder (including two of the three main characters having to deal with murdering an innocent person), rape, sex and swearing. The problem, however, lies in the fact that Freeman’s prose lacks any sort of grit at all. Because of this, Blood Ties occupies a nebulous area between Adult and Young Adult fiction â€“ its subject matter is a mite too intense for typical YA; the tone and depth aren’t quite enough to carry it as a novel for adults. Freeman would have been better off pruning off the ‘gritty’ elements, or at least hiding them behind the curtain, and marketing the novel as a YA novel â€“ a market she is comfortable in and where I feel it could have excelled. As a full fledged fantasy novel for adults, though, it falls a little flat.
The novel moves along at a quick enough pace, thanks mostly to Freeman’s easy-to-read prose, but the plot itself never really seems to go anywhere. Freeman falls into the typical trap by spending too much time setting up the following volumes and not enough time drawing the reader in. She’s done a good job of making Ash and Bramble likeable and mildly interesting, and the aforementioned Secondary Characters are a treat, but there’s little overall purpose to the story other than some vague threats from a warlord and Saker’s meddling with the underworld. It’s hard to convince a reader to pick up the next book in a series when they have little idea what the conflict in the overall storyline is going to be two novels down the road.
Freeman’s attempt at fleshing out the world and slowing things down ultimately worked against the success of the novel â€“ only so many pages can be devoted to one of the characters racing in horse races, especially when the other two are raising the dead and learning the skills of an assassin. While she does a good job of revealing new little insights into an interesting world, it oftentimes feels like she’s simply winging it, making the plot up as she goes along, with little regard for telling a compelling, can’t-put-it-down story. The characters were interesting enough to see me through to the end of the novel, but hopefully the second novel, Deep Water, takes what Freeman set up in Blood Ties and wraps an actual plot around it.