New Releases: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Songs of the Earth is the debut novel from Elspeth Hunt and the first in a new high fantasy series, The Wild Hunt.
The book begins with Gair, a young man of the Eadorian faith. An orphan, Gair had been given over to the Knighthood and he'd spent his youth learning both religion and the sword in a monastary. Unfortunately, his conduct as a studious novice counts for nothing. When the book opens, he's on the verge of being condemned of witchcraft and burned at the stake.
Much to everyone's surprise, the aging Preceptor of the order shows leniency and exiles Gair instead - a shocking act of judicial activism that would terrify the American Right. Reluctantly, the Eadorians chuck Gair out of the holy orders and leave him to fend for himself.
Fortunately, he's not left too long - he immediately falls into the company of a wise old man named Alderan (pre-Death Star, so he's not yet rubble). Alderan chaperones Gair halfway across the known world, helping him to learn about his magic and - eventually - his calling.
It seems that the world is guarded by a Veil - a magical curtain that protects humanity from the beasts beyond: devils, fey, angels and worse. Alderan and his ilk are serve as guardians and repairmen of sorts. They keep the Veil patched up, bounce any strays back through the other side and generally do their best to keep the There separate from the Here. Their order has had some tough times and the fiery conservatism of the Eadorian faith hasn't been making it any easier for them.
Gair has to come to grips with his power, his destiny and the challenges ahead of him. No longer sheltered by the routine and the discipline of the monastary, he needs to learn (quickly) the harsh truth of the magical world around him.
The main problem is, of course, that Gair does learn quickly. Too quickly. As a card-carrying, dues-paying Chosen One, he proves that he's that best at what he does (and, with apologies to Wolverine, what he does is really quite pretty). Gair is Grade A, double-prime prophecy-meat. The ordinary folk, and even the other extraordinary folk, can't compete. And as if excelling in all his lessons isn't enough, Gair also proves himself the prince of swordplay and the undisputed king of hearts. Be it magic, combat or the-prompting-of-the-swooning, Gair's the top of the class. The womenfolk love him and his enemies obsess over him. Gair is the center of everyone's story.
This is a shame. There are quite a few peripheral elements that are never fully developed because Gair is hogging the spotlight. Preceptor Ansel, for example, is battling a fatal illness while still trying to maintain political control of the Knighthood. He's a crabby old man and a genuinely unusual character. His flaws also make him more empathetic and more heroic than Gair. While the latter is born to be the best at everything, Ansel has to work hard to accomplish everyday tasks, much less the exceptional ones. Ansel checking a book out from the library contains more, truer, conflict than Gair battling a legion of demons.
Back under the lights, even Gair's story goes undeveloped at key points. Gair is raised in a brutal, strictly-regimented theocracy but makes the transition to the blandly liberal land of his fellow wizards with nary a qualm or a second thought. Occasionally Ms. Cooper will have Gair raise a tentative question that touches on his faith, but then it goes unanswered or unexplored (or worse - "explored" in the dissatisfying "Gair thought about this all night. END CHAPTER." way). For someone that spent the first two decades of his life genuinely believing he was the spawn of evil, Gair very quickly dons his messianic mantle.
More positively, Ms. Cooper lands firmly on the side of building characters, not worlds. Discussions of the land and its mythology come out naturally through the dialogue and are nicely integrated into the context of Gair's education (by both priests and wizards). Ansel's side of the story also introduces both the "real" and the "secret" history of the land in an intriguing way - setting up the greater conflict without ever relying on gratutious exposition.
Ms. Cooper also does an excellent job describing the magic of her land. She intentionally uses the language of music and color to describe spellcraft - a synesthesiac approach that poetically describes the supernatural. Fans of a mechanical, Sanderson-like systemization will be disappointed, as Ms. Cooper leaves her magic as an open-ended, amorphous beast.
Songs of the Earth is a readable interpretation of high fantasy tropes, but, as of yet, nothing more - a remix rather than a hit single. That's not meant as condemnation - there's always something pleasantly comfortable about character-driven high fantasy. Fans of Karen Miller, Emily Gee and Patrick Rothfuss will all welcome Ms. Cooper to their shelves.