Elspeth Cooper – Songs of the Earth

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 another great 2011 debut. Harkening back to a more traditional fantasy feel, it made me feel warm and comfy in its pages. It felt both familiar and new, as there is a sort of ‘Chosen One’ feel about its protagonist Gair, but nobody comes out and says it. There is no prophecy he has to follow, no magical McGuffin to help him complete a quest. It really isn’t a prophecy-driven book; instead it’s just good old-school epic fantasy, in my opinion.

The world building in Songs of the Earth is fantastic. What really stood out for me were the pieces of scripture Ms Cooper created for the Eadorian Church. They give an authentic and well-rounded feel to at least the Church-side of this culture and through some of the chapters featuring Ansel and some of Gair’s discussions with Darin on Church history we get an even more well-rounded view. The same can be said of Ms Cooper’s magic system. This too is well-rounded, though still mysterious, with little of the actual ‘mechanics’ of the magic revealed. All we really know it’s song-based – everything has its own musical signature – and not everyone gifted with the ability to hear the Song, has the same aptitudes or strength in the powers at play. I’d love to see some more details on the mechanics, but that’s just because I love that sort of thing. Another strong point is the different nationalities and races found in the book. While the world of Songs of the Earth seems in a large part Western-European inspired, with its Northmen and Leahn, who feel somewhat Scandinavian in appearance and a religion which seems to have some familiarity with the Christian one, there are other cultures out there, such as the Southern desert peoples where Aysha came from, the sea elves Masen encounters and the Astolan people, with their White Court and long-lived people. And before you say, oh no elves, let me stress that what I particularly loved about the Astolan is how they are introduced into the narrative—without even any emphasis on any link to elves. Ms Cooper even has Tanith joke about it, when they discuss – inaccurate – Astolan descriptions in literature, telling Gair about Astolan ears: “Completely unpointed, as you can see”. That line definitely made me chuckle out loud.

Besides great world building, Cooper also manages to people her book with interesting characters. Gair is a great protagonist, somewhat naive, but definitely not stupid or too innocent for his age. I really liked his development; he grows up over the course of the novel from a somewhat naive young man to someone who has accepted the blows life has dealt him and risen above them. By the end of the book, Gair has a purpose and goal he wants to reach with his life and, though it might not be the wisest or most rational desire, I’m sure following him as he tries to attain his goal is going to be interesting. As stated above, there is a hint of the Chosen one about Gair and Alderan is the wise one to Gair’s Chosen one. He is the character who knows where Gair needs to go and what’s next, but at the same time he is shown to be fallible and admits it ungrudgingly. I liked the school setting of Chapterhouse where Alderan takes Gair, though we see remarkably little of Gair’s education. Instead of focusing on Gair’s lessons, Ms Cooper chooses to focus on Gair’s interactions and relationships with his fellow students, such as Darin, Arlin and Sorchal, and some of the Masters, such as Aysha, swords master Harlan, and Tanith, one of the healers. I loved the friendship Gair forms with Darin and the rapport he builds with Tanith. But I loved his relationship with Aysha the most. Both because I’m an incurable romantic and because, like Gair himself at first, I kept getting the feeling that it wasn’t right, that it would mean trouble, but at the same time seeing how he made Aysha blossom, it was hard to resist the pairing.

A storyline completely separate from Gair’s was that of Preceptor Ansel and Chaplain Dalinor. In their scenes we get to see some of the machinations within the Church and perhaps some of the motivations of its key players as well. They made me think the Church wasn’t all bad; especially in the latter part of the book where Church politics came to the fore Ansel’s and Dalinor’s scenes were very enjoyable. These are very clever and devious men, who need to defeat even more devious opponents. I truly adored the last scenes where we see them and I hope we will see more of them in the next book along with the Lord Provost and Selsen.

If I have to have one complaint, it’s a minor one: some elements were a little telegraphed. For example, the trinket used by the bad guys to get an in inside Chapterhouse. While I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with it, I did know there was something wrong with it and so its ultimate role didn’t come as a surprise. Similarly, I knew Aysha’s and Gair’s relationship wouldn’t end well, even if I didn’t know why wouldn’t end well. In any case, the way this was resolved had me crying my eyes out, so knowing that something will probably happen, doesn’t mean it won’t have impact. Besides, I can’t help but think that part of the telegraphing is due to that sense of familiarity I mentioned before; Songs of the Earth fits in a long-standing fantasy tradition and as such some elements and tropes are bound to be familiar. And this isn’t a bad thing, as long as tropes don’t become cliché, but, for me, Ms Cooper never crossed that line.

Songs of the Earth is a book which made me both laugh and cry. It made for compelling reading; I whipped through it in sessions of 100 pages a sitting and just couldn’t put it down. The morning before I finished it I was bemoaning the fact I had to go to work as I wanted to finish the book. I came home sat down and didn’t emerge until I’d finished. While I may have been late in reading this first instalment of The Wild Hunt, I’m sure I won’t be as tardy with book two, Trinity Moon. Its release date in April is too far away! If you haven’t done so yet, be sure to pick up a copy of this wonderful début – Christmas presents are just around the corner! – as it’s one of the stronger ones of the year.

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