The Blood Debt by Sean Williams

Published by Pyr

October 2006

ISBN 0-595-14114-6

460 Pages

Author Web site:


In The Blood Debt, Sean Williams returns to the Earth he transformed in The Crooked Letter, continuing the fantastical Books of the Cataclysm. The landscape has changed drastically, with nary a hint of the world prior to the Cataclysm and the characters speaking of the world before as an almost mythical place.  This deep sense of resonance of something before runs throughout the novel and is one of the more powerful themes of the book – the world is bigger and has more to it than each character realizes.


Early on, Williams sets up the world, in terms of landscape, politics, and magic/ technology, enough for people who haven’t read The Crooked Letter to get a sense of the world.  This by no means is a suggestion to forgo reading The Crooked Letter, because that would be a mistake; it just means reading The Blood Debt first won’t cause too many problems for the new reader. Furthermore, there is a tonal shift between the two books in the series.  Where the first book has apocalyptic and horrific overtones, The Blood Debt has a more “traditional” quest-fantasy feel. Even with this more traditional feel to the story, Williams infuses his brand of originality along with familiar elements of fantasy freshly enough for The Blood Debt to stand on equal footing with its predecessor – both in this specific series and the genre as a whole. One element or “feel” both books share is a sense of urgency, and this helps to pull the narrative along very nicely.


The plot here follows several protagonists searching for people and places across the transformed landscape of earth; essentially a fantasy quest or set of quests.  Sal and Shilly are enlisted to search for a magical creature, a Homunculus, summoned by Sal’s father from beyond the mysterious Void Beneath. In this transformed world, the Void Beneath is essentially a ghost world, where souls are lost and any contact with this strange place can taint a person forever. Sal has little choice, as the Sky Warden who summoned him would otherwise bring charges upon Sal for illegally dabbling in dangerous magics; something Sal does do on several occasions.  Sky Wardens, as well as Stone Mages, wield the Change, Williams’s brand of magic in these books of the Cataclysm.


On the other side of the world, is Skender van Haasteren, a Stone Mage on a quest to find his mother.  Early on this quest, he meets a brash young woman named Chu, a sky miner seeking to regain both her wing and her license to fly.  Their goals intertwine as they are both on their way to Laure, the nation-state where Chu hopes to regain her license and Skender hopes to find his mom.  


Although the premise of two quests coming together is a familiar theme in epic fantasy, Williams throws enough surprises and twists along the way, avoiding what could otherwise be a paint-by-numbers fantasy.  I don’t know that subverting is exactly the right word for what Williams does, but the way he plays with the clichés, his creativity and his storytelling ability make The Blood Debt a uniquely satisfying work.  In a sense, this a more straightforward novel than was The Crooked Letter, but this makes The Blood Debt all the more entertaining and fun to play along as Williams throws predictability to the wind. Throughout the characters’ travels across the landscape and their encounters with creatures such as the man-kin, who resemble zombies; the Stone Mages and Sky Wardens, who both feel like the archetypical mages/councilors; and the Homunculus itself, the created man, Williams provides readers with seemingly familiar elements, that come across as both fresh and natural aspects of his inspired imagination. Not only do these, and all the elements of the story, feel natural, but there is also a sense of interconnectivity between everything in this world.  Nothing is without reason.


Williams also did an excellent job of throwing a few surprises in into the story, taking the characters in unpredictable and unexpected directions. While the characters aren’t all equally likeable, Williams makes them all believable through their actions and words.  Throughout the entire novel, Williams plays his cards deftly, never revealing too much, whetting the appetite with each tease of both what is next and how it connects to “our” world as portrayed in The Crooked Letter before the Cataclysm. It is always an easy way out to compare one writer to his contemporaries, but with what Sean Williams is doing in this series, the comparisons don’t come too easily.  Suffice it to say, this series is one of a few that showcases the many branches and diversions from the fantasy tradition that can be taken, in form and content, while ultimately staying true to the genre in spirit.  Sky wardens who fly on seemingly magical wings; a world of ghosts, essentially a purgatory, in the valley of the world; and hints of our world peppered throughout drive home just an inkling of what Williams’s amazing novel, and series, offers.


The Blood Debt is truly unique in that it is a ‘middle’ book of a multi-volume saga but also works very well as an ‘entry’ book to a multi-volume saga.  Between the characters, the strange creatures, and the landscape, Sean Williams gives readers something fresh and mildly familiar in Epic Fantasy with his Books of the Cataclysm.


© 2006 Rob H. Bedford

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