I never did receive a review copy of Anthony Ryan's celebrated Blood Song, so I've never read the Raven's Shadow trilogy. Hence, when a galley of The Waking Fire showed up in my mailbox, I knew it was high time for me to give this author a shot! Although I haven't read the books, I'm aware that Queen of Fire, the last volume in Ryan's first series, did not meet with widespread approval from fans. Which is why my expectations were not as high as they might have been.
This is probably why this novel blew me away at first. So much so that The Waking Fire appeared to be the fantasy book of 2016. Unfortunately, the overall quality deteriorated as the story progressed and what seemed to be an incredibly compelling and imaginative read turned into a chaotic and predictable black-and-white mess. In a nutshell, this title is Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn meets Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance meets Indiana Jones meets James Bond. It could have been absolutely brilliant, and for a time it was. Sadly, Ryan wasn't able to sustain this flair throughout. In the end, we are left with a very uneven and somewhat disappointing work of fiction.
Here's the blurb:
Throughout the vast lands controlled by the Ironship Syndicate, nothing is more prized than the blood of drakes. Harvested from the veins of captive or hunted Reds, Green, Blues and Blacks, it can be distilled into elixirs that give fearsome powers to the rare men and women who have the ability harness them—known as the blood-blessed. But not many know the truth: that the lines of drakes are weakening. If they fail, war with the neighboring Corvantine Empire will follow swiftly. The Syndicate's last hope resides in whispers of the existence of another breed of drake, far more powerful than the rest, and the few who have been chosen by fate to seek it. Claydon Torcreek is a petty thief and an unregistered blood-blessed, who finds himself pressed into service by the protectorate and sent to wild, uncharted territories in search of a creature he believes is little more than legend. Lizanne Lethridge is a formidable spy and assassin, facing gravest danger on an espionage mission deep into the heart of enemy territory. And Corrick Hilemore is the second lieutenant of an ironship, whose pursuit of ruthless brigands leads him to a far greater threat at the edge of the world. As lives and empires clash and intertwine, as the unknown and the known collide, all three must fight to turn the tide of a coming war, or drown in its wake.
The worldbuilding is by far the most interesting aspect of this novel. Though using dragon's blood to gain powers is nothing new, it's by no means a fantasy trope. By and large, I feel that the author did a great job in that regard by giving this plot point an original spin. Given the blurb, we knew that the blood of dragons would be at the heart of the tale. The historical backdrop is not your typical medieval European setting. There is a certain level of industrialization, what with the presence of firearms and steam-powered engines. This is a welcome change and gives The Waking Fire a definite unique flavor early on. Two great powers face off across the globe. The Ironship Syndicate, a corporate conglomeration of nations whose mastery of dragon's blood have made them the most powerful political entity in the world, squares off against the Corvantine Empire, an old-school aristocracy which is rapidly losing ground in this conflict.
The blood-blessed were a cool concept and they represent what is hands down the best and most exciting magical system since the one introduced in Sanderson's Mistborn series. Problem is, the politicking can be terribly gauche and plot holes turn this book into a bucket that doesn't always hold much water. The more the story progresses, the more it becomes obvious that the foundations on which the plot must rest are often shaky. By the time we reach the halfway point, various storylines stop making sense and a lot of things seem contrived. The manner in which the three main plotlines are connected and later brought together leaves a lot to be desired and ultimately kills the finale. I don't believe I've ever seen a book start on such a high note, only to peter out for two hundred pages or so, and finally go down the crapper altogether.
The tale is told from the perspective of three extremely disparate protagonists. Claydon Torcreek is a street criminal from the slums who is also secretly blood-blessed. Things go wrong one night and he is press-ganged into service by the powers that be. He is forced to accompany his uncle's crew as they set out to explore remote areas of the continent of Arradsia in search of the fabled white drake. There follows an Indiana Jones-esque expedition across jungle, desert, and mountains. Lizanne Lethridge, a trained spy and assassin, is sent on a mission to gather intelligence on anything that might lead to the discovery of the whereabouts of the White. Though she was the most interesting character to begin with, Lizanne was way too over-the-top and soon became some sort of caricature. Indeed, she's a mix of James Bond, Ronda Rousey, Drizzt Do'Urden, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in movies such as Commando (in which he manages to gun down dozens of bad guys shooting at him with automatic weapons while carrying only a 3-shell shotgun without reloading). I mean, this woman could probably survive a nuclear strike just by holding her breath. Intelligent and crafty, not only is she badass with a capital B and survives armies and dragons without getting so much as a papercut, but she's also the one who keeps unraveling all the mysteries that are at the heart of the plot. Her storyline is closely linked to Claydon's and the relationship engendered by this connection is as improbable as it is unbelievable. As a street thug, I found it hard to fathom that he could show such empathy toward her and vice versa. The last point of view is that of Corrick Hilemore, an officer newly assigned to what could be the fastest ironship in the fleet. For the better part of the book, it appears that his POV serves no other purpose than to witness rousing naval battles. And though these are fun and exciting, until the very end one keeps wondering exactly why roughly a third of The Waking Fire is dedicated to him. Still, even if Hilemore is likely the least engaging protagonist of the three, his storyline is doubtless the most gripping. Like Brandon Sanderson, it appears that Anthony Ryan has problems with shades of gray. Though he handles mature themes better than Sanderson, both authors' characters are decidedly black-and-white. And this, for me at least, was a major disappointment. Having said that, considering Sanderson's immense popularity, I reckon that a multitude of readers might not have a problem with this aspect.
The pace is rather crooked throughout. Following an amazing and inventive beginning, the rhythm starts to slow down in the middle portion of the book. This is no problem at first, as the tale continues to capture your imagination and keeps you turning those pages. But as Lizanne and Clay's plotlines intertwine more and more, and as war with the Corvantine Empire seems inevitable, the pace goes to hell and The Waking Fire gradually becomes a slow-moving and predictable mess. Especially Lizanne's storylines, which makes less and less sense with each new chapter. The lead-up to the endgame is a crazy succession of unbelievable scenes in which our protagonists come out on top, no matter how high the odds are stacked up against them. I am well aware that this is a work of fantasy, but this is just so impossibly absurd that it stretched the bounds of credulity to their breaking point. At least as far as I'm concerned. . .
As a result, the endgame and what led up to it was so far-fetched and ridiculous that it robbed the ending of whatever impact Anthony Ryan envisioned for it. Thankfully, there is resolution of sorts. Yet it is obvious that The Waking Fire was meant to be an introduction to a much bigger tale. I just wish it had lived up to the great potential it showed early on.
The Waking Fire could have been a stunning novel. But subpar and black-and-white characterization, over-the-top battle scenes, poor execution, plot holes, and an uneven pace prevented this one from achieving greatness. Too bad, as all the ingredients were there.