This review was originally published at http://www.thebookbag.co.uk in June 2008 and was also subsequently published on ciao.co.uk on 29/10/2008 and on Goodreads on 31/12/2014
The history of the Eleven Domains is a violent one, with the whole country having been overthrown by Acton and his armies some years before. Now the invaders live in the villages the original residents were removed from and those who survived now live a rootless existence as Travellers and are looked down upon and mistreated by the locals and the Warlords who control each Domain. Even those who have settled down and made a life for themselves and have cast off the road are treated with suspicion by those they live amongst.
“Blood Ties” follows three of these outsiders as they make their way in and through the world. Bramble has had to run away from her home village after accidentally killing one of the Warlord’s soldiers. Ash is a professional bodyguard who has put friendship ahead of duty and had to flee his home as a result. Saker is different, as he is motivated purely by revenge; wanting to see his people reclaim the land, even if that involves raising the dead.
The story switches between the three main characters, occasionally branching off to cover the back story of some of the minor characters they come into contact with. Every chapter is listed with the character to be followed to ensure they are kept separate, although as I got further into the story and they all developed their own personalities, this was less important for the major characters.
This was the real strength of the novel, in that most of the characters were so well drawn you could really feel as if you knew them. There isn’t any great attention paid to the way they look, other than to draw the distinction between the darker haired Travellers and the blonde invaders, but their personalities are separate and you can come to know them, especially Bramble and Ash and his travelling companion, Martine. There are flashes of romance and humour and you get the feel for travelling companions and people at ease with where they are, even if they have been forced to take to the road one way or another.
The one place where this was a little lacking was with Saker, who potentially had the more fascinating story, but who didn’t get a lot of time, although his story may be covered in more depth in the other parts of the trilogy. Given that Ash and Bramble were more or less heading in the same direction and their stories were both largely about their journeys, I felt that more about Saker would have provided something different; given his aims, perhaps this would have been a little dark relief?
This way of telling the story did enable me to keep track of all of the main characters, but it did make the book a little patchy. On several occasions, it seemed that just as I was really starting to get involved with one character, their part ended and the story moved on to one of the others, or went off on a tangent with one of the minor characters. I can see the advantages in this approach, but I felt it interrupted the flow of the book in some places. The other problem was that some of these minor characters didn’t feature again, so whilst their stories were often interesting, they didn’t seem entirely relevant and felt a bit like space fillers.
The other problem I had was the issue of time. For most of the book I was never entirely sure if the characters were likely to meet, as there was no idea of what part of the year they were starting their journey and the passing of time was rarely discussed. Their paths crossed at different points, but I was never sure how much time had elapsed. Unfortunately, this meant that by the time they were close enough that it seemed likely they would meet, Freeman had to use a rather disappointing trick to allow their time frames to coincide. I’ve always disliked novels where strange events are explained away as magic and so this was a huge let down for me, especially as Freeman had proved up to this point to be a good enough writer not to have to resort to tricks like this.
This was a particular shame, as the book is otherwise pretty good. The character’s lives and their motivations are well thought out, to the point that I had sympathy for the Travellers. As the story was more about the journey than any real trials they faced, however, it was tough to get too involved in things; I ended up wanting them to succeed, but lacking the compulsion to actively will them along as I have done with other novels. The story itself is an interesting one, even allowing for what I thought was potentially the most interesting part being slightly skimmed over and I liked the idea of the future being seen through stone castings and that of ghosts rising at a set point after death.
As an opening part to a trilogy this did succeed in parts, as it was good enough to keep me reading and I’m interested in how things may go from here, although in a similar way to Kate Elliott’s “Shadow Gate”, I wouldn’t feel too badly about it if I failed to find out. It was a decent story, but unfortunately the writing style wasn’t quite right for it, although it may well have succeeded better had the breaks been in different places. It’s not the perfect read, but it’s not at all bad and I’ve read far worse in the genre.