Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Book Review | Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

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Gair is under a death sentence.

He can hear music - music with power - and in the Holy City that means only one thing: he's a witch, and he's going to be burnt at the stake. Even if he could escape, the Church Knights and their witchfinder would be hot on his heels while his burgeoning power threatens to tear him apart from within.

There is no hope... none, but a secretive order, themselves persecuted almost to destruction. If Gair can escape, if he can master his own growing, dangerous abilities, if he can find the Guardians of the Veil, then maybe he will be safe.

Or maybe he'll discover that his fight has only just begun...

Songs of the Earth is the most compelling debut fantasy novel since Patrick Rothfuss first hit the shelves four years ago, with the stunning The Name of the Wind. Combining superb characterisation with an epic story, it is beautifully told and engaging from the very first word.


"This is the fantasy debut of 2011," proclaims the cover of the ARC of Songs of the Earth.

Big words for such a little book!

Which isn't to intimate that Songs of the Earth is at all short. I mean, perhaps by fantasy standards, where the industry norm of a hundred thousand words might just get you through the first quarter of one the doorstoppers we champion as if size actually matters... but by any other measure, Elspeth Cooper's debut is in quantative terms more than adequate.

And as to its quality?

Well. There's a lot about Songs of the Earth you'll find familiar if you've kept up with the genre since The Name of the Wind redefined success and our expectations thereof in 2007. Fantasy tropes old and new proliferate, in fact, from the very first: "The magic was breaking free again," the telling of this tale begins. "Its music sang along Gair's nerves as if they were harp-strings, a promise of power thrumming through his fingers. All he had to do was embrace it, if he dared." (p.5)

Of course Gair has dared already, and where has it gotten him? For conjuring up a light to read by, his adoptive family disabused themselves of the boy entirely, delivering him misbegotten into the arms of the Church to be raised a Knight, pure and chaste and true; except that now, years later, the Church in turn has caught Gair displaying his sacrilegious talents. For his troubles, he's to be burned to death on a witch pyre.

Cooper picks up the tale just as Gair is granted a last-minute reprieve from his trial by fire, and approached, as if by magic, by the man Alderan: a mysterious old so-and-so with "more layers [than] on an onion" (p.68) and - hark! - some understanding of the Song, which is to say the omniscient source of Gair's abilities. And Alderan has an offer for Gair. He invites the outcast to accompany him on his travels; to learn more of the Song as they go, and perhaps to meet others like him on the long road home.

Needless to say, Gair dares. Songs of the Earth chronicles the first leg of his journey, and for all its familiarity, all its modesty, it has the makings of a very fine tale indeed. Moreover, on the strength of this one novel, Elspeth Cooper gives every indication of being a speculative star on a vertical trajectory, worthy of mention in the same breath as the likes of Brandon Sanderson and - yes! - Patrick Rothfuss.

As in the debuts of both the heavyweights aforementioned - indeed, as continued the case in the most recent efforts of each - book one of The Wild Hunt has its issues. It's not wall to wall awesome; not quite. First and foremost, Gair seems all things to all people. It's one thing to be adaptable, another entirely to slip from skin to skin and find every which one fits like a favourite slipper. And so, Gair's early successes feel a little on the light side, for how can we be excited by his rise when we have not seem him fail? Subject to something of a dressing down as the day wears on, his struggles thereafter have all the more weight for that fact, his sufferance all the more meaning.

However, Cooper is a canny enough author that she sidesteps a swathe of the pitfalls which plague even veteran fantasists. When the chosen one of Songs of the Earth goes to school, for instance, as chosen ones are wont to do, rather than allowing one's interest to waiver, Cooper smartly redirects our attentions towards goings-on far from home, introducing new characters, perspectives and conflicts quite apart from Gair's continuing education - each of which I found more fascinating than the last, as my stake in affairs  sketched an exponential curve.

So too does Songs of the Earth standalone as a satisfying narrative unto itself. Grave questions remain unanswered at its conclusion, needless to say, yet herein Cooper offers complete character arcs - till death do the reader and the written part in several shocking instances - and enough in the way of closure with regards to those characters set to return in the sequel, Trinity Moonto satisfy all but the most pedantic. Sure enough, "There will be a reckoning, I have no doubt of it, but today we've got other things to do," (p.410) asserts a certain individual as Songs of the Earth bears down on its fantastic - in either sense - climax. For myself, I can hardly wait.

As our beloved genre grows ever older, there is an increasingly prevalent notion that every new novel needs bring something entirely its own to the table. That every debut must break new ground in terms of its setting, or its magic system, or its cast of characters, or else be ignored, or damned with faint praise, as with some of the early word on Songs of the Earth. This, I fear, is an idea destined to be disappointed. The more stories there are, after all, the less remain to be told. To think an infinite number of narratives exist out there is to set oneself up for failure, surely. Though I shudder to use the word, what originality we can reasonably expect from fantasy fiction, or fiction in any other genre, we will find in the telling, and not the told. And in that regard, as in myriad others, Songs of the Earth is as fresh as flour from the mill, and as rich in power, and possibility.

It's too soon to call Songs of the Earth the fantasy debut of 2011, of course, but be sure, come the appropriate time to make such judgements, it will stand a very viable candidate.


Songs of the Earth
by Elspeth Cooper

UK Publication: June 2011, Gollancz

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1 comment:

  1. Having had the pleasure of reading the book, I feel your assessment is very fair. It's not about the all-new, acme plot device. With Cooper it's the fact that she immerses one in her beautifully crafted world. What more can a reader ask from a book?