Blood Ties by Pamela Freeman

Blood Ties

AuthorPamela Freeman

Pages: 480 pages
Publisher: Orbit Books
Release Date: April 7, 2008
ISBN-10: 0316033464
ISBN-13: 978-0316033466

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about how I was feeling over saturated with Epic Fantasy. You know the kind – 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 wasn’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 I’m slowing the plot down…nothing’s simple. The great advantage epic fantasy has is that it’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 – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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.

  • James (Speculative Horizons) December 11, 2008 at 2:11 am

    Good review, Aiden. It’s always a problem when the prose and content don’t seem to match up. I had a similar problem with Brent Weeks’ debut novel – plenty of violence and ‘mature’ themes, but the prose was rather simplistic and lacked the dark edge that the material needed. It’s a bit like pouring water on top of oil – the two just don’t mix properly.

  • aidan December 11, 2008 at 10:08 am

    That’s a great analogy, James. I’ve debated giving Weeks’ novels a try, but I’m worried that I’d have the same issues that I did with Blood Ties.

  • edifanob December 11, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    I like Brent Week’s novels. So I should like Pamela Freeman too. I think I understood what you wanted to say about prose and content.
    Maybe this is a bitdifferent for me. I’m not a native English speaker. So form time to time I like to read books with a more simplistic prose.

    Anyway I will put Pamela Freeman on my TBR list.
    And not to forget to mention your review which gave me the reason to do it.

  • Pamela Freeman December 11, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, Aidan. I haven’t actually written YA – my books have been for actual children, rather than teenagers, so the transition to adult writing was quite a jump. I think Deep Water is a better book in a lot of ways to Blood Ties – I hope you do too!

  • aidan December 11, 2008 at 9:00 pm


    I think you’ll enjoy Blood Ties. Freeman’s prose isn’t s), but rather just honed from her experience writing for a younger audience. Despite my reservations, her prose was one of the nicest things about the novel!


    Glad you could take it all in stride! Sorry for the mixup, looking at your web site, it seemed like you had a few YA books under your belt! Like I said, though, 17 (!!) books under anyone’s belt is certainly fantastic experience.

    I’ll drop you a line soon about doing an interview. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the jump from children’s books to adult novels.

    I’ll be sure to give Deep Water a shot sometime in the future.

  • Pamela Freeman December 12, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Hope you like it. I’d be happy to do an interview – it’s a great site. As for taking it in stride, I’m a firm believer in listening hard to any kind of criticism. I workshop all my books and I welcome editorial comments. It’s the only way you improve. So thanks!

  • Hans December 12, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Its nice to see an author take criticism of her work in such a mature way.

    @aidan: enjoyed the review, by the way

  • Harrison Holtz December 14, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Aiden I really enjoyed this review. This is one of the reason I like to visit so many blogs as I’m able to find books I have never heard of and in turn give them a chance.

    I’m intrigued by this novel, and the vignettes from secondary characters reflecting their experiences with the three main characters is something you don’t see often. It’ll be interesting to see how Pamela handled these.