01 April, 2012

Review: The Songs of the Earth, by Elspeth Cooper

The Songs of the Earth [US][UK] (☆), by Elspeth Cooper, is a remarkable debut that will leave most fantasy aficionados asking for more. While not groundbreaking in any sense, the Songs of the Earth is a highly pleasing sword and sorcery adventure that manages to be original while still embracing the tropes of the genre.

A young protagonist, whose parentage is unknown, has a 'gift' that society deems a curse.
The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14, is very clear: Suffer ye not the life of a witch. For a thousand years, the Church Knights have obeyed that commandment, sending to the stake anyone who can hear the songs of the earth. There are no exceptions, not even for one of their own. Novice Knight Gair can hear music no one else can, beautiful, terrible music: music with power. In the Holy City, that can mean only one thing: death by fire—until an unlikely intervention gives him a chance to flee the city and escape the flames.
It is hard to imagine a debut author breaking the mold in her first book and revolutionizing the genre, but I certainly encourage her to widen the narrative in the next installment to the series. With strong writing and a knack for character building and action sequences I am excited to see where the series is headed. But back to the story...

After escaping the clutches of mother church, our young protagonist, Gair, is thrown into a struggle for the future of the world. With a magical gift which surpasses that of any student in the history of his magic school but one, Gair seems destined for greatness. Self-sacrificing, honest, and pretty damn skilled with a sword, Gair must put it all on the line to defend his school, his way of life, and, well, the world.

Magic takes the form of songs, which practitioners can hear. Somewhat Platonic in nature, Gair has the ability to transform into any animal by mimicking its Song. While there are distinct areas of magic, such as fire and air, ect, the precise workings of the magic system are somewhat blurry, and deliberately so. In an interesting interview with Cooper over at Staffer's Book Review, Cooper has remarked...
I'm not particularly interested in the nuts and bolts of how anyone's magic works, as long as it's consistent and enough is explained for me to understand it. That's one of the reasons why I didn't dwell on Gair's studies: I shouldn't need to write a primer on the use of the Song for a reader to enjoy the story. Besides, with Harry Potter et al the whole magical college thing has been done, and I didn't think I had anything new to add to that particular trope. The way I see it, if you make your magic too hand-wavy and unknowable, you run the risk of it becoming a cop-out, a cheat, a way to cover up a deus ex machina. Analyse it to death and it becomes too much like science (don't you start quoting Clarke's Third Law at me!) and you lose a little bit of what made it magic in the first place.
That said, I found the 'system' perfectly enjoyable as well as the emphasis on sword play. The sword training scenes are strongly reminiscent of those where Rand practices the sword in the Wheel of Time. There is a zen like, meditative quality to the exercise that I have always found to be very appealing that Cooper captures very well.

Of further interest to readers is a fact that Adam caught on to that I had not realized until I read his review. Every main character has some sort of disability.
Gair is branded and recovering from torture and trauma; Ansel is old, infirm and suffering from a lung disease; Darin has diabetes; and Aysha has two crippled legs, but her shapeshifting skills enable her to avoid her disability for a few hours per day. Cooper doesn't beat the reader over the head with this (in fact I was halfway through the book before noting it), but it's interesting and all-too-rare to see handicapped and infirm characters depicted in a fantasy novel, with disabled issues viewed though the lens of a world where magic exists (but its healing properties have limits). It's not a huge deal, but it's an interesting minor theme that Cooper develops subtly through the book.
The fact that I didn't notice it shows how subtly it was done. This just underlines the fact that Cooper is a strong writer with lots of promise. I am glad that Tor picked her up and sincerely hope that she will push herself and the story down a less trodden path in future installments to the Wild Hunt series. As a plus, to those readers who care about these things, according to Cooper's twitter feed, the next book is at the end of the proof reading stage. This generally translates into the book being out within the next year! You won't have to wait GRRM amounts of time to see where the series is going.


Bryce L. said...

Guess I'll definitely have to check this out. Looks even better now than I thought before.