I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Bloody Rose‘s predecessor, Kings of the Wyld, was one of the best debuts I read last year, and one I still think about with great fondness, so that I was looking forward to its sequel, especially since I knew it would not feature the same characters as the first book in the series and therefore I could look forward to meeting a totally new set of people, which made this story even more intriguing.
Tam Hashford has heard of the epic feats of traveling bands all her life: her own parents were part of one, and her mother died at the hands (or paws, or claws, or whatever…) of one of the monsters her band faced. Because of this, Tam’s father chose to lead a quieter life, trying to erase from his daughter any yearning for adventures and heroic gestures, being tragically aware of the kind of price exacted by those ‘adventures’. But it’s difficult to steer away a young person from dreams of heroic deeds: on the contrary, any kind of interference can only manage to steel their resolve, so that when Fable, the band led by Bloody Rose, comes to Tam’s village, she manages to get enrolled as their bard.
The members of Fable are a mixed and intriguing bunch: there is Rose of course, whose fate in besieged Castia caused her father Gabe to reunite his old band Saga to save her; Rose’s right hand and lover is the druin Stormcloud, while the rest of the group is made up by Roderick (a satyr trying to hide his nature under outlandish clothes), Cura (an inkwitch, able to summon the most incredible creatures from the tattoos drawn on her skin), and Brune, the shaman (meaning he can sham into an animal shape, apparently a bear – even though the story is more complicated here…).
The world changed considerably in the years after the events depicted in Kings of the Wyld though, and the exploits of bands don’t concern the removal of dangerous creatures anymore: the bands now fight only in the arenas, and more often than not it’s more of an act than a true fight, where the “monsters” are mostly underfed mongrels, all bark and almost no bite, captured for the purpose of making the bands look good, especially through the bards’ retelling and embellishments. This makes for a very different kind of tone in respect of the previous book: where Kings of the Wyld was a delightfully weird romp focused on putting the members of Saga back together, and their adventures always had a patina of tongue-in-cheek fun despite the seriousness of their goal, here the story is pervaded by a creeping sense of melancholy, of the awareness of a world gone forever that tries to cling to its past glories but only manages to show the surface appearance of it, without real underlying substance.
It takes only a few days on the road to start divesting Tam of all her starry-eyed notions about the life of a band, and soon enough the days all seem like a boring repetition, just like the story seems to move at a very slow pace, in what felt for me like a very different experience from the previous book: Iittle by little, however, I started to get to know these characters, and to perceive their strong bond, the sense of family that kept them together. I believe that the sense of detachment I experienced at first came from Tam’s p.o.v.: she is of course the outsider – just as the reader is – and she needs to integrate in the group, to know them and to be known by them in turn. That’s the moment when I became truly invested in the story, and that was also the moment when it took a very serious turn, a deadly serious turn, indeed…
I’ve come to believe that with the slow-burn beginning the author choose quite craftily to lull his readers into a false sense of sameness, so that he could better spring his surprise, a terrifying surprise that imbued the story with such a sense of inescapable doom that I literally flew through the rest of the novel in the attempt to relieve the anxiety I felt for the fate of the characters – therefore realizing that I had come to care for each of them deeply. That’s why it was so hard for me to come to terms with the high price that some of the events entailed – I will not say more about it, since it’s a huge spoiler, but I confess I did not expect it, and it still hurts…
Bloody Rose probes into several important issues, like perception of self and the need to fulfill one’s goals irrespective of whatever kind of pressure (parental or otherwise) is exerted on an individual; or again the concept of courage and the necessity to find it inside us rather than trying to borrow it from external sources. But where this story truly excels is in depicting the sense of family, of a group of people who are each scarred in their own way by past experiences, and yet manage to turn their flaws into a useful tool for the good of the group, understanding that the family they found among themselves is worth any kind of sacrifice, no matter how high.
In the end, everybody is transformed – either because they have changed in the course of the story (like Tam, who goes from a self-effacing village girl to a more assertive person), or because they have changed in the eyes of the reader, who comes to know – and appreciate – them better, and if that development takes a harrowing journey that leaves too many casualties along the way, it’s a trip worth making thanks to the skills of the storyteller. Which is the reason I will forgive him for bringing tears to my eyes with the final surprise at the end of the book….