Sep 16, 2011

Book Review–Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

songsSongs of the Earth is the first part of the Wild Hunt Trilogy and Elspeth Cooper’s first novel and foray into epic fantasy.  It’s been hailed as the “most compelling debut fantasy novel since Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind.”  I am not inclined to agree, but we will get to that shortly.

The Story
We begin this epic tail with our hero being readied for execution. Gair is a novice knight of the Suvaeon Order-a holy order that has its history rooted in the destruction of the magic using Sun Cult.

Gair can hear the song, a magical reality that he can reach out to and at times manipulate.  But, as it is written in The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14: Suffer ye not the life of a witch, and so our hero is doomed. 

Until of course, in an unprecedented move, the head of the order banishes him instead of killing him.  What follows is pursuit by those who feel he should fry, rescue by a mysterious order of magic users and the surfacing of an ominous evil that threatens the destruction of the very world in which they live.

What I liked
Cooper’s writing is polished and for the most part it drops into the background and lets the story come to the fore. 

The use of the song, of music as magic seemed a reasonably fresh approach to a magic system.  I am sure that  is not entirely original but it didn’t strike me as over done.

What I didn’t
Sometimes it can be the smallest of things that can interrupt a reader’s enjoyment.  For me it started on line 5 with;
Hail, Mother, full of grace, light and life of all the world.  Blessed are the meek [snip]..amen.
which is awfully close to,
Hail Mary full of grace, the lord is with thee, Blessed art thou…
Which, if you are an ex-catholic or a current one you’ll recognize as the Hail Mary of Catholic prayer. Possibly more than recognize - it is probably etched forever into your grey matter. 
A fellow reviewer found its inclusion slightly offensive to Christians.  I found it dropped me  out of the story every time Gair mentioned lines like, “blessed are the meek” and finished with “amen”.  Amen is a baggage laden word of Hebrew origin, co-opted by Christianity that you can’t just plonk down in a fantasy story.

I understand what Cooper was trying to do - add verisimilitude by having something that might be familiar to the reader, to tap into the collective shared experience of prayer that the populace might have, craft a secondary world with familiarities that help ground the reader. 

In this instance though I feel it’s a failure.  To find a successful application of this technique we can look at GRRM’s Oath of the Night’s Watch; its metre, its word choice and tone is reminiscent of a solemn prayer, without feeling like it’s Christian prayer with the serial numbers rubbed off. 
Night gathers, and now my watch begins.
It shall not end until my death.
I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
I shall live and die at my post.
I am the sword in the darkness.
I am the watcher on the walls.
I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.
I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
This small thing was a reasonable hurdle to overcome in my enjoyment of the novel.
Another small thing was the choice of names, one in particular, Alderan(see Alderaan) as the name of an Obi-wan Kenobi mentor figure. 

In a book that’s also lauded for its characterisation, there were a couple that to me seemed very poorly developed.  The first was Goran,leader of the Curia faction that wanted Gair dead.  He’s presented as an overweight priest-like pervert.  This combined with holy knights, catholic prayer, inquisitions and the burning of witches, had me at one stage wondering if author voice was creeping in. 

I like my fiction to be fiction, not a veiled dig at institutions,unless it’s really well done i.e. subtle and original. My rule of thumb is to leave that sort of stuff for non-fiction. 

The poorest characterisation, in my opinion was of Savin, the all powerful evil. The sketch we are given near the end of the book, of his backstory, was utterly unbelievable.  A babe born evil that kills both its parents before it can crawl, but that the Order of the Veil decide to raise instead of dashing its head against a rock?

When the rest of the characters are bound by human developmental psychology and motivations, Savin stands out as an aberration.

So despite the issues I had with it, I think it’s worth giving Cooper ago.  When I put the issues to the side the story worked well enough and kept my interest.  Younger readers with less experience of fantasy may have no issue with the work at all.

This book was a review copy provided by the publisher.

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