Blood Song by Anthony Ryan is a military fantasy that – after a “peek at the future” prelude – spends the first half of the book following the adventures of a young boy, Vaelin, who – following the death of his mother – is placed in a military training academy by his father.
The premise here isn’t anything new, but the execution of this part of the story is impressive. The level of detail is high, making the story more believable even as it adds a level of uniqueness to a familiar scenario. The various characters seem to have real personalities, while the child characters evolve as the story proceeds. Meanwhile, the overarching plot (graduate!) helps tie the material together, thereby smoothing over the “collection of related short stories” feel that would otherwise have prevailed.
At the end of the training, however, the book stumbles. Vaelin (actively, aggressively) ceases to be a protagonist. He effectively tells the King, “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, no matter that it runs counter to everything I hold dear.” And that’s what happens. The King becomes an off-screen protagonist (a.k.a., an excuse for why things don’t make sense), while the POV character becomes a puppet, going around doing things that he doesn’t agree with, believe in, or fully understand. The result is a sequence of events that the reader at best finds painful, but more likely finds unconvincing and uninvolving.
After all, if the POV character doesn’t really care about what he’s doing (or would rather be doing something else), then exactly how is the reader supposed to feel?
At one point, Vaelin argues with the Voice of Fate (literally). “I didn’t ask for this… I never wanted it.” To which Fate replies, “Want is nothing…. You are a plaything of [the plot outline]….” Vaelin attempts to rebel but fails:
“I’ll choose my own fate,” [Vaelin] said, but the words were faint, empty, a [puppet’s] defiance….
These quotes remind me of various push-back moments in the Harry Potter series, where Harry complains about his lack of skills or his being excluded from the main plotline (see my book Destiny Unfulfilled for more details). In both cases (with Rowling and here with Ryan), I believe we’re seeing the author’s subconscious crying out “This is WRONG!” As writers, we have to be sensitive to what our characters are telling us, because often they speak with the voice of our inner elves. Those elves will do what you tell them, but it’s a good idea to listen when they mutter about orders that don’t make sense.
Protagonist = Plot. And to be a protagonist, a character must have a goal that they pursue. Their own goal, not someone else’s.