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Book Review: Blood Ties by Pamela Freeman

* Genre: Epic Fantasy, Literary Fantasy
* ISBN: 0316033464
* ISBN-13: 9780316033466
* Format: Paperback, 400pp
* Publisher: Orbit
* Pub. Date: April 7, 2008
* Series: Castings Trilogy

More often than not, writers of fiction for adults will make occasional forays into novels written for younger adults (Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, even George R. R. Martin) but rarely does it go the other way around. When it does happen, these books from writers of young adult fiction are derided as childish or overly simplistic. But sometimes, a jewel rises to the top. In the this new offering from publisher Orbit, Australian author Pamela Freeman has managed to make the leap from young adult to adult narratives effortlessly.

Blood Ties is the first novel in what is being called The Castings Trilogy, an epic fantasy set in a world where ghosts and prophecy are a part of everyday life. The story follows three characters: Bramble, Ash and Saker, all children of a subjugated race called Travelers. They have been oppressed for a thousand years by the blond haired and blue eyed Actons. As the story progresses, each character is forced to deal with what it means to be a part of a reviled race, while also coming to terms with what they can do about it. This sense of what to do about racial oppression. The little and big reactions to it are the primary motivators for the characters in this first book of The Castings Trilogy.

Bramble is of mixed blood, Traveler and Acton, but she looks like a Traveler. Forced to leave home for a crime she committed but would get no justice for, she takes the Road, as her ancestors have done ever since their subjugation. In essence, Traveler’s are like the gypsies many readers will be familiar with, and they are just as reviled in the world of Blood Ties. Much of Bramble’s struggle is about learning self-worth in the face of such aggression toward her. She also is seeking to avoid powerful men who use power simply for the sake of exerting control. Her aspect of the theme racial oppression is its effect on the weak.

Ash is a young man of full Traveler blood. Unable to learn his parent’s craft of music due to a horrible singing voice, he is apprenticed to a woman who trains guards named Doronit. Ash thinks he is being trained to provide safety for others, but he is in fact being trained to become a for-hire killer. His conscience causes him to struggle with this, but his gratitude to Doronit and lust for her keep him tied to her. In the meantime, he discovers he has powers over the ubiquitous ghosts that appear after the death of all people. Ash was my favorite character in Blood Ties. He is a little lost boy searching for a home.

Saker is the least explored character. His chapters are very short and his nature is little explored. He is the character that seeks revenge for past injustices. His skill as an enchanter makes that possible, and it seems that he is being prepared to become the face of evil for the trilogy.

Although by no means a slow novel (it does have quite a bit of action, although not usually of the sword and sorcery type), its primary focus is on character building and world building. Each primary character acts and reacts separate from the other, moving toward an ending where they finally encounter each other. The conclusion of Blood Ties is not any sort of climatic finale or final battle. The story simply ends by introducing us to a new character and preparing the set up for the next novel with an act that will likely lead to a confrontation of epic proportions in the next book.

Nor is there a primarily evil character. For the most part, evil is faceless and sense of racial oppression and injustice. By the end of the novel, evil begins to gain a face both Acton and Traveler. However, evil is in the eye of the beholder, and Freeman has worked hard to make her characters truly rounded by using the “stories” of the minor characters.

What makes Blood Ties so unique and makes it better reading than the average coming of age or standard epic fantasy, is the vignettes Freeman includes in the tale. In between the stories of Ash, Bramble and Saker are short stories that give the reader either a prehistory or post-history of some of the minor characters whose lives touch those of the primary ones. Each “story” as they are titled in the volume, is written as if the person writing it were telling you, the reader, the events that happened to them either before of after their encounters with Ash, Bramble and Saker. This unique writing technique does a great deal to flesh out the history of some of the minor characters. The chapters’ containing these “stories” are almost as exciting to read as the primary tale.

I loved reading Blood Ties. Although the majority of it is given over to character and world building, the world it builds is fascinating and the characters extremely compelling. The plot has a very nice ebb and flow of action and introspection, and Freeman has done well in keeping the reader’s interest. There is little wrong with the book, although some readers will likely be turned off by its pace, and the fact that there is no definable evil character, at least initially. Some readers will also be turned off by the theme of racial oppression. Yet I think that Freeman gives a rounded view of the topic and avoids becoming myopic. Travelers are not all good and Actons all bad.

The story contains a couple of rapes (not overly explicit, but key to understanding some of the characters) so it is not for children and Freeman likes to use the word “shagging” a lot. Of course, in the US it has less meaning than in Freeman’s native Australia. Finally, Freeman does resort to adding magical elements to her world just to get her characters out of dire situations. While consistent with the world, it sometimes seem like some of them were just a way for Freeman to get her characters out of tight spot.

If you like epic fantasy this is a good book to read. It is not preachy like Terry Goodkind and its world is unique from many others in the genre. It has none of the dwarves or elves you might expect from such but doesn’t really fit into another categorization. It is comparable in style to Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia’s Colors in its literary form. Fans of Karen Britain and Karen Miller will also like it, as it has a lot of horses and also has the same sort of mood in its feel. I highly recommend Blood Ties and I look forward to its sequel Deep Water.