Book Review: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.
Gair has been keeping a secret. Although he a good warrior for the Church, he has a talent for magic that the Church decries as witchcraft. It comes as a terrible song that he cannot stop hearing, and when it manifests too strongly, the magic manifests uncontrollably, and visibly. Magic. Witchcraft.
With his secret revealed, the law and doctrines straight from the holy book of the Church he serves are clear: Suffer not a witch to life. Witches are to be killed, with fire. A strange intervention gets his sentence commuted to exile, but elements of the church, led by a witchfinder, are not content to let Gair just walk away. And it soon becomes clear there are others interested in Gair and his burgeoning abilities. Parties Interested enough to follow his journey and education as well. Can even a secret society devoted to magic protect and allow Gair to grow into his abilities in time to stop the troubles ahead and save those he cares about?
Such is the matter of Songs of the Earth, a debut novel from British author Elspeth Cooper.
In addition to Gair’s story, Songs of the Earth revolves around a couple of other plotlines, most notably intrigue and politics within the Church itself, as signs and portents are convincing an elderly statesman of the church that the church’s dogma just might possibly be wrong. This as younger hard-line elements of the church are looking for new leadership.
And did I mention there is an unconventional (by epic fantasy standards anyway) romance, and intimations that there is a much bigger threat on the Weimer Stakes score than the coming of age of a magic user, a militant church’s internal politics and a witchfinder’s Javert-like quest to find Gair?
Most of Songs of the Earth is from Gair’s POV, with breaking away to the church intrigue, and a couple of other minor POV’s. Thus, the book rises and falls on the strength of his story and how engaged I was with it. But frankly, in many cases, I found the non-Gair elements more compelling in many instances than Gair’s himself. I don’t know why, but when the action and point of view broke away from him, in many ways the book seemed to gain strength and interest for me when it did.
The writing is adequate but not scintillating for me. There were instances where a bit of description was a deft touch and well done, but for the most part, it wasn’t magical. I admit that her description of the action and combat scenes, and especially how she handles the description of the Song were well done. But the writing of many other scenes did not come alive for me, or didn’t come alive as much as it should have, as the author seemed to be reaching for.
As far as plotting, again, I think the author’s reveals were a little too parsimoniously parceled out. We discover that Gair has a rare sub-talent with the Song with no warning, suddenly and with little build up. Some more foreshadowing of that would have more appreciated by me as a reader. We also learn some key facets about other, minor characters relatively late in the book. While the twists make some facets of their personality, motivations and actions clearer and more logical, I think the reveals could have been better handled. I do admit that tedium did occur in a few stretches of the book. It never was to the point where I stopped reading, but I did notice it.
The setting isn’t entirely original, especially given some of the innovative fantasy I’ve been reading lately. Songs of the Earth was a return to well-explored territory, in terms of the matter and inspirations. The parallels between the church and a militant medieval catholic church are obvious and not precisely innovative. I understand the author is not a cartographile and doesn’t care overmuch for maps, but I would have liked one for the book, to anchor a sense of place. But even if its bog-standard in many respects, aesthetically it came off well enough.
What this book reminds me of in many ways is another debut author I’ve read recently, and that’s Peter Orullian. Most of the basic details are completely different of course, but in many ways I felt the same way about The Unremembered as I did about Songs of The Earth and I would put them in the same weight class. Potential, glimmerings of something really special, but in the execution, found frustratingly lacking to this reader.
I am going to use a photographic metaphor to sum up Songs of the Earth, and please forgive my digression for doing so. In a real sense, if the Functional Nerds were to have a Photography Nerd, it would be me.
Think of Songs of the Earth in terms of a photo. Many of the components of the image are there or can be seen. Clear subject, even if not a unique one. Good lines and angles and composition of the photo. Maybe a couple of stray elements that could have been cropped out or recomposed better, but nothing terribly serious. However, in the processing of the image, the image has come off as extremely flat, without enough definition and contrast to make the colors pop. Or, alternatively a circular polarizer should have been used in the taking of the image to get crisper and deeper tones from the sky and the subject.
I do think there is potential here for the author’s future work. But as such, right now, the author has plenty of room to grow and develop and I hope does so. I’d like to read what she writes with some more experience and developed skill under her belt.