The first installment of Pamela Freeman‘s Castings trilogy may seem at first like a typical fantasy novel, with swords as everyone’s weapon of choice, horses as everyone’s mode of transportation, and copious amounts of ale and stew making up everyone’s diet. But it doesn’t take long before Blood Ties reveals itself to be quite different from the usual swords-and-sorcery realm: in its setting and atmosphere, in its plot and story-structure, and in its myriad of themes and ideas.
For starters, there is no supernatural evil “Dark Lord” out to destroy the world — just a number of squabbling and greedy warlords who have divided the land into a number of Domains, having invaded and conquered the original inhabitants. Now known as “Travellers,” due to their wandering lifestyles, these dark-haired people are harassed and despised by those that forcibly took their lands. Such prejudice naturally leads to various crimes of murder, rape and theft against the Travellers, with little consequences for the perpetrators. Even though the invasion of their lands took place hundreds of years ago, the injustice still rankles amongst the Travellers, and the massacres of their people are remembered in song, passed on from generation to generation.
Two other notable features to this fantasy world are Freeman’s portrayal of death and the presence of “stonecasters.” In this world, the spirits of the dead linger on earth for a fixed period of time before moving on to (what they hope) is rebirth. Stonecasters are those that can read fate in the throw of a collection of small engraved stones, most of whom also seem to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead — though some are better at this than others.
Into such a world are born our two main protagonists: Bramble and Ash, both with Traveller blood. Bramble is a wild young woman of the countryside who likes nothing better to roam the woods all day, whereas Ash is a young assassin’s apprentice in the city, just coming to terms with the reality of killing. Most of the attention is on these two as they struggle through various obstacles in life, and both are interesting and three-dimensional characters: sympathetic without being too good to be true.
But it is the plot itself which makes Blood Ties so unique in the fantasy genre, for the story (such as it is) moves at a languid and meandering pace, spans a number of years, and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the typical aspects of what we deem “fantasy.” There are no quests for magical items, no dragons that need slaying, no long-lost heirs to the throne or innocent farm boys with great destinies. Instead, Freeman explores the world through the eyes of her two characters, focusing on the day-to-day struggles of survival in a harsh world. It is so removed from the clichés of fantasy literature, that a segment involving Bramble would read (if taken out of context) more like a girl-training-wild-horse story, as she teaches herself how to ride.
And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much, for along with Bramble and Ash’s stories, there are several shorter chapters dotted throughout that tell the stories of periphery characters and their place in the world. It’s an interesting feature to the book, and although some may grow impatient with these chapters considering they often have little bearing on Ash or Bramble’s stories, they help to enrich the overall story and the customs and cultures that Freeman has created for this world. Furthermore, they allow us to catch a glimpse of worldviews that oppose Bramble and Ash’s — such as the memories of a soldier who explains why he is so loyal to the warlord who poses such a danger to the rest of the world, and his reasoning that it may not be such a bad thing if he was to unite the Domains.
However, there is a thread of a definitive plot at work in the story; that of a third character named Saker, who travels the world in the attempt to raise the ghosts of massacred Travellers from their graves to wreck vengeance on the descendants of the conquerors. Toward the end of the book, another element is introduced (perhaps just a little too late to have the impact that it should) that hints toward a more concrete plot that will no doubt be developed further in later books.
Amidst all the pain and despair, Freeman is careful to include moments of joy and peace, and ultimately Blood Ties feels more like a story about a world than any particular person, full of its own history, culture and unfolding future. Presumably, the sequel Deep Water will delve more into the brewing tension between the warlords and the Travellers, but for now, the exploration of this created world is all the reader needs to sustain their interest.