Songs of the Earth review

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Songs of the Earth is the first novel by Elspeth Cooper and the first book in the series named The Wild Hunt. The novel is in the shortlist for the Morningstar Award, the David Gemmell Award for the best Fantasy debut. It is the result of several years of work for the newly published author. The next book is named Trinity Moon.
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. 
With the Church Knights and their witchfinder hot on his heels, Gair hasn’t time to learn how to use the power growing inside him, but if he doesn’t master it, that power will tear him apart. His only hope is the secretive Guardians of the Veil, though centuries of persecution have almost destroyed their Order, and the few Guardians left have troubles of their own. 
For the Veil between worlds is weakening, and behind it, the Hidden Kingdom, ever-hungry for dominion over the daylight realm, is stirring. Though he is far from ready, Gair will find himself fighting for his own life, for everyone within the Order of the Veil, and for the woman he has come to love.
The premise of Songs of the Earth falls directly into the common Fantasy tropes.  Gair is a young magic user who cannot control his gift, or curse if you're on the side of the Church, and is picked up by a wise master.  He eventually becomes the future, or an important tool, for the order of the Guardians in a battle against a former prodigy gone rogue.  These Guardians are the keepers of the Veil, the barrier between two worlds, the Hidden Kingdom being full of dangerous beasts.

Why am I summarizing the book this way you might ask?  Because, as I mentioned, that is the premise of the book, its foundations.  Anyone reading this could make his own idea easily by judging his or her interest in it only by this description. However, what you really want to know is : "Is there's more to it?". I can't deny that we are in very familiar grounds with Songs of the Earth and in some aspects, the author succeeded in straying from the path. Sadly, in others, originality is an unimplemented wish.

Gair is a young, easily influenced man.  He's dedicated, serious and a silent dreamer.  Following him around, my interest in the outcome of his coming of age through apprenticeship grew considerably. He develops relations cautiously with the other members of the Order but they feel genuine, thoroughly so.  Rendering the emotions, reactions and implications behind it all is skilfully phrased and depicted by the author. I would have preferred relationships with more disparate protagonists than a fatherly old master, a young good-humored and affable fellow student and a gruff and pretentious sword-training partner.

On the other hand, there's the two female parts revolving around Gair.  One, Aysha, is his love interest and the other one, Tanith, is a specialist in healing helping Gair on several occasions.  For both of them, Cooper succeeded in writing distinctive parts. She handles Gair's relationships with the two masterfully. In the various instances where they are involved, the feelings of intimacy or longing are truly convincing. Aysha in particular is probably the most fascinating character.  She's a lone woman with a disability and the gift of shapeshifting.  But more importantly, she's opening herself to Gair and the result is a wild and intense ride for the young pupil.

Overall, Espeth Cooper's writing is straightforward.  The action sequences are concisely described and the environment usually feels vivid enough.  Curiously, something else stood out for me when reading the book.  I think that the author likes discussions and more precisely, argumentation a lot. In almost all of the situation where characters disagree or want to make a point, the dialogue persist lengthily until all the possible points of view have been exchanged, creating a certain redundancy. In some cases an interesting kind of divided rhetoric is perceivable. This is more present in the scenes with the Church officials.

Between these Churchmen and the Guardians, the story of Songs is split into two main threads.  They are not really interwoven in term of structure and the way they are alternated, with the less extensive emphasis on the leaders of the Church, breaks the pace of both storyline. They usually don't feel as part of the same book. I hope that she brings them together more adequately in the following book.

The worldbuilding has been polished but here again, it ends up being in the comfort zone.  The historical background is being explored enough but it's still the Church versus the magic users.  Inside the different factions, there's talk of other races and exotic places but there's not much that stands apart.  The magic system is based on classic elements with a touch of creativity in the usage of it in the form of a song and colors.

In the end, I can't say that Songs of the Earth really stood out from the crowd but it was an entertaining read.   I will look closely at the next novel since the prospect of Gair for the future looks promising.

Technically, the Gollacz edition cover (at the top) is simply awesome.  Alas, the Tor edition, the second one I posted, is not really interesting, too generic.  Sadly, there is no map included with the book which would have been a must.  The book stands at 496 pages and the narration of the audiobook, which lasts 16 hours or so is performed by Alan Cordurner, who offered a nice performance.

Songs of the Earth review score :

Characterization.............  7.5 / 10
World building...............   7 / 10
Magic system.................   7 / 10
Story..............................   7 / 10
Writing...........................   8 / 10

Overall (not an average) 7 / 10

Elspeth Cooper page


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