Hello everyone. For today’s Fiction Friday I am reviving an old review series in honor of those books I tried but just couldn’t power through. Since I am only reviewing books I finish over on the podcast, and since I feel like I have things to say about this particular title, I thought I’d bring back a classic.
So, today I’ll be talking about Of Blood and Fire by Ryan Cahill, which I DNF’d at 40%.
Before I get into the details, a disclaimer:
Look. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m certainly not trying to shit on an author who has undoubtedly made more money off their writing than I ever have. But, yall, Of Blood and Fire reads less like the epic fantasy novel it is sold as and more like a checklist of writing pitfalls to avoid. And while there are absolutely indie published books out there that are wonderful, I could not help but think while reading this book, “I can see why an agent (or even several agents) would have passed on this.”
To me, Of Blood and Fire has three fatal flaws, as well as a bunch of little, should-have-been corrected-in-revisions/editing ones.
Let’s do the big ones first.
A Whole Lotta Telling
Have you ever watched a lecture, or listened to a podcast, or read a blog post that harped on show don’t tell and wondered… what the fuck does that even mean?
I would submit this book as the absolute embodiment of when an author chooses to tell rather than show. The prose reads almost like a history book. This happens and then this happens and then the character did this. The character did that. The character reacted. And then something else happened.
It’s extremely dry and, moreover, it’s extremely boring. While we do get some base sense of what our main character is feeling and thinking, it’s all very perfunctory. In fact, the telling aspect of the writing is what eventually led me to finally DNF, because the main character’s father is murdered right in front of him… and we just swiftly move on to the next part of the scene. There is very little in the way of, like… actual meaningful reaction from the protagonist, other than just generic Oh no dad! Stuff. And at that point… I realized I just didn’t care enough about the characters or the conflict or the setting to drag myself through another 300 pages.
Beep, Beep! Here Comes the Info Dump!
Alas the telling isn’t solely limited to the action and the plot. It’s also how we learn about the setting! I shit you not, my friends, we get a literal history lesson in like the second or third chapter from a bard. We have to sit there and read paragraphs upon paragraphs of just… history, while his audience oohs and aahs over THINGS THEY ALREADY KNOW.
This applies to pretty much everything we learn about the world. Very little setting information arises organically, as the plot calls for it, but instead in often contrived ways, such as the protagonist musing about things that have nothing to do with the immediate situation. I know some people don’t mind this kind of worldbuilding, but I absolutely can’t stand it. I will never retain all this information, unless I can tie it to something meaningful in the plot and so it just ends up feeling like I’m reading the equivalent of an infomercial.
Both of these things, the telling and the infodumping, add up to the ultimate reason why I could not force myself to finish this book.
(Don’t) Pace Yourself
Holy hell this book is so friggin slow. The first full quarter of the book, yes 25%, was spent just on introducing the main character, his family, friends, and immediate environment. Which, I acknowledge, can sometimes (even often) be necessary in a rich fantasy setting where there is a lot of new terminology and lore necessary to understanding the plot to get through.
However, Of Blood and Fire isn’t one of those kinds of books. Set in a generic fantasy world with a generic fantasy protagonist embarking on a generic fantasy rite of passage in a generic fantasy political climate, there was absolutely no excuse for spending over a hundred pages just on the opening snapshot. By the time I DNF’d at 40%, I still had only the vaguest idea of what the plot might be but I couldn’t even guess at the stakes.
The main character’s father being murdered by the generic fantasy villains was probably the first substantive thing to happen that was actually tied to the plot (the “Proving” was interesting, sure, but didn’t appear to have anything to do with the story itself beyond just establishing the main character and his buddies). Yet even that beat suffered from bad pacing, however this time it all happened too quickly. The first real moment of tension in the entire story and it was over in less than a page.
I tend to give more grace to slow beginnings. With the fantasy genre, it’s just going to happen sometimes. But this was a bridge too far. I could not imagine that any semblance of a plot would be shown any duty of care within the pages I had left, after spending so long on the opening beat.
But Wait, There’s More
Longtime readers of the blog know that I’m a picky bitch. I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer DNF based on nitpicks, but when I’m already struggling to enjoy a book the smaller flaws will stand out more starkly.
- Headhopping. Without finishing the book it is difficult to say whether or not the headhopping was intentional and the author was purposefully giving us additional POVs or if he just found jumping perspectives a convenient way of giving the reader information the main character didn’t have. Personally, it felt like the latter and I haaaaaated it. The best storytelling, in my opinion, withholds information until it becomes necessary (necessary being the key word there). Of Blood and Fire gives it away like candy from the back of a windowless van.
- Anachronisms. I’ve already returned my KU edition of this so I can’t pull specific examples, but I do remember thinking that the interactions between the main character and his buddies felt like a strange mix of generic high fantasy speech and modern day lingo. Sometimes that works, but you have to commit to the bit, and I don’t feel Cahill did here.
- Editing. And by editing I mean line editing (though I definitely think it could have done with a developmental edit as well). This draft was not super clean, and the typos and spelling errors took me out of the story.
Look, it wasn’t all bad. I thought the lore with the giants had potential to be really cool. I just think this book lacked narrative clarity and focus, and instead meandered through the everyday life of a prototypical farmboy a little too long to be at all interesting.
And that’s all I have! Until next time my friends, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.
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