Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews Elspeth Cooper’s 2011 debut novel, a Gemmell Morningstar shortlist nominee.
“A fantastical tale of self-discovery, mystery and magic, Elspeth Cooper is an author to watch out for.” ~The Founding Fields
I am on somewhat of a debut author kick this year. The idea kind of started with attempting to read a few choice debut authors from 2011 and 2012 (based on the Morningstar lists) but quickly grew into a much larger project, for which you can find my progress here. It’s all the more interesting because I’ve been following a few of these authors on Twitter and my decision to read their novels is partly based on how interesting I find them to talk to. Some among them have worked for me, others not so much, but that’s to be expected really. Still, I’m going full on with it and the latest author in this quest of mine is Elspeth Cooper, who’s novel Songs of the Earth, the first in theWild Hunt series starring former Knight-initiate Gair, I’d been looking forward to for quite a while now. The only trick was to fit the novel in with all my ARC reading, a rather tall task for someone like me who can’t resist the pull of ARCs.
Songs of the Earth was everything I expected and it delivered on almost everything that I wanted out of it.
The protagonist of the novel, Gair, is someone I liked from the very first few pages. Incarcerated, tortured and about to stand trial for being a magician, something about him speaks on a very profound level to me. That his story in those early pages mirrors a witch-hunt for (female) witches in the less culturally-enlightened times of European history, except that he is a man is just another of those added layers to the narrative that you can expect from the author. The sense of mystery that this all creates, because you want to find out all the details of Gair’s supposed transgressions in detail and just why the Church is so against magic in general, is also alluring in its own way. You can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Gair, not in the least because his torture has left him able to barely stand on his own feet and yet he persists in preserving his dignity while standing in judgement by his accusers.
The character of Gair is one of the most interesting things in the novel. We first see him as weak, requiring the help of others for even the simplest of the most common tasks. And then he sets out on a journey with his mysterious benefactor and saviour, from he learns strength, both inner and outer. Seeing him grow into the (quite) powerful character he is by the end of the novel was an experience in itself. I do have to say though that at times he appears to be too special, seemingly able to handle most forms of magic with ease, able to surpass those more accomplished in a much shorter time. One reason for that could be because we actually spend very little time in his training and acceptance of his abilities. I would also say that this issue is something I expect to be addressed in the sequel, Trinity Rising. Either there should be some limits put on him by the narrative or we should be allowed to spend more time as he grows into his powers.
Supporting characters in the novel are several. We first have Alderan, a highly accomplished magician in himself who is also one of the Masters of the last remaining magic academy in the world. I have to admit, his name kept tripping me up, because my mind kept seeing and pronouncing it as Alderaan, the homeworld of Princess Leia Organa Solo, the world we saw so callously destroyed by Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977). It made for some awkward reading, I can tell you that. On the whole though, I liked his character. He’s not just the token wizard who speaks in vague riddles and gives little away to the protagonist. He was much more real than that and is a character that I can’t wait to read more of in Trinity Rising. Then we have Aysha, Alderan’s fellow Master and someone who grows quite attached to Gair during his stay at the secluded academy. She was a character I never quite managed to make up my mind about. She was likable enough but her obsession with Gair was something that didn’t sit well with me. However, her forceful nature contrasted well with Alderan’s more reserved attitude and it was nice to see that comparison. It really stirred the melting pot of characters and made the cast really diverse.
Other minor characters that we little of and that I would have liked to really see a lot more of, were: Masen, the Gatekeeper of the Veil and an accomplished magician in his own right. I thought his brief appearances didn’t do him enough justice and he was a most promising character. Just like the Lord Preceptor, Ansel, who presides over Gair’s witch-trial. The subplot involving him, while intriguing in its own way, didn’t entirely connect with me as it wasn’t explored in the depth that I came to expect of it. It certainly ends on pretty much a perfect cliffhanger and I’ll take that, for now. Then we have Darin, a (token) character who befriends Gair from his earliest days at the academy and gives our long-haired protagonist a very touching connection with the larger world. Additionally, he is a character who suffers from a rather fateful disease, diabetes, which in Darin’s case has led to to him suffering from polyphagia, meaning that he has a really really large appetite. It added a further touch of warmth and realism to a narrative that already had it in spades. Finally, there is Savin, who really was very under-used, especially as he was the villain of the story. He leaves his mark throughout the narrative but for me it wasn’t enough. A credible threat, but not so engaging. I remain hopeful that like a couple or so other things, he’ll get due attention in the sequel. The author definitely leaves hints to that effect by the time the novel ends.
The setting intrigued me as well. Magic isn’t just magic, but an all-pervasive song that those who are properly attuned to can shape to their will, whether it be through hurling fireballs or shape-shifting or what have you. This is an approach that I rather like reading about in my fantasy. The mood that this creates feels more impactful, more personal for me. The magic is, of course, an innate thing here, just as it is in say Harry Potter or in Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, but casting it as a song that the wielder can hear makes it so much more. Elspeth Cooper definitely gets points for that.
There are other things in the setting that are equally intriguing, such as the history of the Church and how it came to power, as well as the lies, the treacheries, the half-truths that have shaped it. As someone who buys into the whole Da Vinci Code/Holy Blood, Holy Grail notion, the idea of the dark conspiracies at the heart of the Church really appeals to me. The politics that lie at the heart of the Suvaeon branch of the church also helped in creating that atmosphere of deceit and mystery, which is where Preceptor Ansel and his opponents such as Elder Goran come in. Another point for the author.
The pacing of the novel I found to be largely ok, although the middle is definitely slower than I expected. Almost too slow. A little too much time is spent on the minutiae or things that could have been glossed over. The author does recover the pace for the climax and the immediate build-up to it though. The climactic battle at the end is ruthless, brutal and full of tension of the kind that makes you sit on the edge of your seat. It’s just that good by then. It works well with the strong opening of the novel, one of the strongest I’ve read.
So yes, overall, I really enjoyedSongs of the Earth and I would definitely recommend it to people who like their fantasy with a touch of heroes, romance, brutal magic action and lots and lots of variety to the magic itself.