Book Review: Songs of the Earth

Songs of the Earthby Elspeth CooperTor, 2012Early in Elspeth Cooper's debut novel Songs of the Earth, a character says, "There are things in this life we cannot change, we must simply accept. Death. Taxes. Queues." Die-hard readers of fantasy novels such as this one could ruefully add a few items to that list: a hapless protagonist with a secret importance, a kindly all-knowing old stranger with bushy eyebrows, ancient orders of hidden magic-users (good and bad), all of it in a setting roughly akin to 10th-Century England, rife with taverns and broadswords. These things have been the ironclad requirements of fantasy fiction for sixty years, since J. R. R. Tolkien virtually invented them all for the modern age, and there have been so few exceptions over the decades that even irritated fans have mostly resigned themselves to the what and trained themselves to concentrate on the how.Outrage over all this derivation would be more honest - but there's no denying that such outrage, scrupulously applied, would deprive the fantasy genre of some very good stuff. Stephen R. Donaldson's "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" series owes virtually everything to Tolkien (whose horse-loving Rohirrim become the horse-loving Ramen in Donaldson's fantasy-world, etc.), yet it brings the reader scenes of thrilling creative power; the works of Patrick Rothfuss, David Farland, Tad Williams, Terry Brooks, and Christopher Paolini, and countless others, would be unimaginable without that Tolkien matrix; even Clifford Simak's The Fellowship of the Talisman gets some mileage out of winking in the master's direction. For good or ill (mostly ill, most certainly ill when dealing with the lowest orders of these writers, who think nothing of using terms like 'halfling' and 'orc' as though they were dictionary items), bookstore shelves are filled every season with yet more variations on the givens of The Lord of the Rings - the task becomes not so much avoiding them (in favor of more original fare, like Orson Scott Card's "Prentice Alvin" books) as assessing what kind of energy these authors put into their homages.The character who makes that opening comment in Cooper's novel is Alderan, a bushy-eyebrowed Gandalf stand-in who shows up to help our hero, proud, conflicted young Gair, whose high destiny comes not from an inherited Ring of Power but from within: Gair was born with the ability to reach out and sense the Song, an all-pervasive energy-field that fills the world, as Alderan tells him in one of the book's many blocks of exposition:

"You are one of an increasingly rare breed. You can hear the songs of the earth, touch a power so great it can raise mountains, yet so subtle it can furl a thousand petals into a chrysanthemum bud the size of your thumbnail. This is as gift beyond measure, and access to that kind of power comes with a price. That price is restraint."

When Songs of the Earth opens, Gair is on trial for his life by the Church in their citadel atop the Holy City (Cooper's world has saints but no Messiah - it's basically a land of Unitarians), because scripture has declared people like Gair to be witches and their abilities an abomination. Gair escapes death and manages, with Alderan's help, to flee the city, taking one last look in the kind of neat little moment for which Cooper displays a real flair:

From this distance Dremen was a jumble of blue slate roofs, church spires thrusting through the evening haze. It looked just what it was, a provincial capital humming with ordinary people living out ordinary lives...

Once on the run, Alderan helps put Gair in contact with the Guardians of the Veil, a hidden order of magicians who guard the invisible barriers separating the ordinary world from the Hidden Kingdom. Those barriers have recently begun to weaken, setting the stage for a battle between good and evil in which Gair and his burgeoning powers will play a pivotal role.In other words, readers looking for significant departures from the Tolkien schema won't find any. But as noted, there can be other rewards in books of this teeming sub-genre - and Cooper's book is full of such rewards. Her writing style is punchy and involving, her characters very often sound like normal people (no mean feat in this part of the bookstore), and her plot is deftly controlled. Songs of the Earth is a good book and a very promising debut, and its strongest element is Cooper's obvious joy in describing the natural world - details that would be mere scenery in the hands of some less sensitive author shine in these pages:

Two wolves burst from the birchwoods and raced each other across an alpine meadow. Tails waving, tongues lolling, they charged through the long grass, snapping at each other like two cubs allowed out of the den for the first time. Back and forth they ran, criss-crossing each other's path, jinking and turning with the sun warm on their backs and yellow birch leaves drifting through the air. Rabbits drummed alarms and scattered into the grass; partridges exploded from beneath the wolves' feet and whirred across the pale sky.

Songs of the Earth is the first book in a series called "The Wild Hunt," and by the time readers reach the end of this opening volume, all but the fussiest of them will be eager to read the next instalment, no matter how familiar the proceedings are. "Books are meant to be shared" Alderan at one point informs our young hero - and it's certainly true of this one.