Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

I’ve never hid the fact that I am a sci-fi reader before a fantasy reader, but every now and then a fantasy book comes along that I look at and just want to read. Songs of the Earth is just such a book, not as hefty as some other novels in the genre but the blurb makes it sound interesting, the fact that it’s the first part of a planned trilogy even better. I won’t lie, this one has a lot to live up to even before opening the page, the publisher declaring it as the fantasy debut of 2011. However, for me Songs of the Earth hit the spot and delivered the kind of story that makes me want to read more fantasy – a rare thing indeed!

Gair is a witch, awaiting execution at the hands of the Church. For many years he has hid the truth about his magical skills while learning about the religion and fighting methods from the scholars at the Church, and he knows full well what they do with magic users. However, at his trial the Preceptor, an old and frail man, grants him a lifeline in the form of exile rather than the death he – and everyone else – was expecting. But not everyone is willing to accept this and a witchfinder is quickly dispatched by opposing members within the Church to carry out the execution as intended. Fortunately for Gair he falls into the company of Alderan, a wise old man who hides more than he lets on, but the offer he makes Gair is irresistible: travel with him to a place where he can improve and master his talents among others like him. And his journey begins…

Songs of the Earth may be a fantasy tale with magic, strange creatures and a hidden world beyond ours, but it’s the characters that drive it forward. Gair is, of course, the hero of the tale, and one that is exceptionally strong at what he can do. However, he’s got the recognisable background of orphan who doesn’t know his parents – a sure sign that he’s destined for greatness. But Gair is an interesting character, one that has never had a home and has had to hide his magical powers from everyone around him, keeping a secret that could (and does) cause great problems for him. He’s not the only character I liked either: you’ve got Alderan, the wise mentor; Ansel, the old and determined Preceptor of the Eadorian faith; Aysha, the crippled shape-shifter. There are many more I could go on about, but that would just ruin it for you. The bad guys are also interesting, although we don’t get quite as much depth to them as we do the good guys, something that I hope is improved on in the next novel.

The world building is also a good aspect of Songs of the Earth, but not one that is deeply explored. Cooper manages to create a very real world for the story to take place, and done so without much info-dumping, but I would have liked to have found out a little bit more. There is a fine line between not enough details and too much, and while the balance isn’t quite right, it’s pretty close. But then again I do like a good bit of world building in my stories, so this is very much personal taste talking.

The magic is also another aspect of Songs of the Earth that I very much enjoyed, the way that a person uses song to create the magic, hearing the different tunes and managing to craft them into different things. It’s not a system that is precisely laid out either, but one that you get a feel for as the story progresses and you see more of it in use. It’s interesting and adds a good element to the story, another aspect that I hope to see further explored in the next two books.

Above all else Songs of the Earth is a damned fine novel. It tells the story in an interesting way, and while it may not be bringing new groundbreaking stuff to the genre, for me it’s exactly the sort of book I want to read. It manages to shy away from some typical fantasy elements, but it also incorporates much of what I expect from a novel in this genre.

Debut of the year? Hard to tell at the moment, but boy is it one hell of an entertaining read!

Songs of the Earth is not your typical fantasy novel by any stretch of the imagination. There are a number of unique qualities about it that make it stand apart from others in the genre, including a much lighter tone compared to authors such as Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie or Sam Sykes.

Cooper is a storyteller who takes time where it is needed to flesh out her characters and the world they live in without the need for big chunks of unwieldy exposition. The reader learns about far off lands through encounters with natives from those areas, as well as through dialogue that doesn’t feel forced and is not designed just to pass on information. The description of the world is done well without it being heavy handed and it is the little details that made it easier for me to picture in my head. I had a real sense of history, culture and an idea about the landscape via snippets of information.

Coming to any new fantasy series can be daunting because quite often they are long running series and the books are weighty tomes which will put off casual readers. This is the first of a trilogy and because Cooper has found a good balance between pace and detail, it is a reasonably sized novel.

For the most part her characters are fairly straightforward individuals and their aims easily defined, although as the story continues more grey begins to drift in. That is not to say the characters are simple, far from it, but there is no ambivalence and few surprises for the reader. Gair, the main character, is a troubled young man who has a good heart despite everything that has been done to him, and he always tries to do the right thing. Although there are plot twists, a character is never turned on their head from hero to villain or anti-hero and the rug is not pulled out from under the reader’s feet.

Cooper spends time on the main character and his relationships with everyone else, perhaps more so than some authors, so this is not popcorn fantasy that puts pace and action ahead of depth. It is a rich read that takes the time to develop characters without overdoing it.

Although Cooper mentioned on her blog that she had no desire to write a novel that featured some of familiar racial archetypes found in fantasy, or some of the epic fantasy furniture such as prophecies and magic swords, there are some familiar elements for those familiar with the genre. An orphaned main character with a special gift beyond others is a regularly used archetype, but even though Gair is stronger than some of the others, he is one of many and is not the chosen one. There is, however, the possibility that his unknown heritage will later be revealed to be significant and in some ways I hope not. I would prefer it if he was simply the son of an ordinary man, rather than the long lost heir to a great king or similar. I could be wrong but only time will tell.

The story has a strong connection to nature as the magic system used, the Song, is linked to balance, restoration, and the maintenance of a Veil that keeps different worlds separate from one another. The lighter story with a dark undercurrent, the well thought out world-building, the connection to nature and a stronger focus on relationships reminds me of Freda Warrington’s Jewelfire Trilogy of fantasy novels. Songs of the Earth is a fascinating and thoughtful fantasy debut quite unlike many others in the genre and the author has a unique voice that separates her from the competition.

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