I’ve read a varied mix of reviews for Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth, a mixed bag ranging from one-star, to five-stars. I awarded it the latter, simply because it was just the kind of book that makes you reaffirm your love for fantasy fiction.
Clearly, others did not think so.
I’m not going to list reviews and refute their points, as that’s just bad form, and the content of any book is subjective to its reader. However, what I do want to do is explain just why this book received a shining review from me.
From the offset it was clear that Cooper was more concerned with writing character, than setting, and so she sensibly decided to veer toward a more low fantasy setting populated with enough similarities for the reader to recognise Medieval Europe, but with enough nuances for it to be an imaginary world. That’s fine; Cooper wanted to focus on people, not world, and it worked for her purposes. Her characters are interesting, attractively written, and addictively readable.
I read Songs of the Earth without having consulted any reviews—this is what I do when selecting books. I don’t allow myself to be swayed by reviews, as I generally accept that I am easier to please that most fantasy readers, and aspects that others will pick at, I’ll merely accept. This isn’t the case with everything, however, with a world such as Songs promised, populated with the characters hinted at by the blurb, I thought I couldn’t go wrong with this book as a counter-mood to what I had just read (Mark Charan Newton’s The Book of Transformations).
Having read Songs so closely after Newton’s latest, the difference between the types of fantasy these books represent is staggeringly obvious. Newton flaunts razor-sharp prose that digs deep to the heart of the philosophies he mulls over in his work, whilst Cooper’s sweeping craft invites you to step somewhere greener, away from the concerns of the real world.
I gave both five-star reviews.
I’ve scanned over reviews complaining about a myriad of aspects of Songs and none of which I understand—from the romance, to the almost slice-of-life pacing people seem to be very much so torn on where than stand in relation to Cooper’s debut, which happened to be highly recommended by its publisher as a new talented voice. I’ve used that term before, “slice-of-life” in regards to Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms Quartet, and I’m beginning to think it’s a somewhat alien concept in fantasy fiction.
For me, the term comes from anime (Japanese animation) and it generally describes anything where the plot isn’t necessarily as deep and sweeping as with some stories, but rather centres around the characters and their lives. This genre of anime is extremely popular, and even series that veer toward other genres—fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural—have this slice-of-life element. I’d say that even Rothfuss employs the tactic in his Kingkiller Chronicles. Rather than complain about the slowness of a book, or whinge about a lack of “anything happening”, I’d refute that life happens. Does a book have to be a thrill-a-minute ride where the reader scarcely has time to breathe before the hero finds himself in another fix?
I don’t think so.
The magic of Songs was in this quality, and whilst others might deny the existence of an encompassing plot at all, I’d just tell them they’re not looking hard enough, and should go read something defter, darker and grittier. I have never read Joe Abercrombie, but I have the feeling I would not like his work—from the synopses I’ve read, it doesn’t strike me as my “thing”—and in fact, I have the sense that Abercrombie’s work might just be the polar opposite of Cooper’s.
This suits me fine.
I appreciate all kinds of fantasy: I enjoyed The Fallen Blade (Jon Courtenay Grimwood) for its ruthlessness and although I have issues with the series, Stephen Deas’ Memory of Flames exhibits much the same cut-throat narrative technique.
Somewhere in the middle lies Newton’s work, which I tend to view in a different light to most fantasy.
And then we have the likes of Cooper and her—I suppose, when compared with the above—gentler work. I’m not by any means patronising her work (I gave it a five-star review, remember?), but I think that term works at least in part. Her work isn’t coddling, if that’s what you think I’m getting at. Rather, it lacks the grittiness exhibited by a lot of fantasy at the moment—and that is a good thing, at least for me!
After you’ve spent three or four books slithering around in the mire and blood and shock of other series, what is better than cleaning off with some good, decent and classic fantasy?
I described Blake Charlton’s Spellwright as classic fantasy made new, dressed in new clothes and made to look better, and I think Cooper’s work falls alongside Charlton’s in the techniques they employ to take classic fantasy and make it shiny and attractive again. These writers are the ones who instead of resisting—whether subconsciously or otherwise—Tolkien, Eddings and their ilk, have decided to pick up where they left off, and make it fresh again, giving it not only a new lick of paint, but a fresh sanding and gloss to boot.
I like writers like this.
I also like a broad range of fantasy, too, but I suppose my heart does lie with these writers who still maintain that fantasy doesn’t have to be dark to explore darkness, and doesn’t have to be gritty to explore the harshness of life.
I can see why people may have been disappointed with Cooper’s debut, and at the same time, I think they’re just not trying hard enough, or, they’re trying too hard to see the current trend for dark, brooding anti-heroes in Cooper’s work. The problem with trends is that people expect to see them, without realising that if they become too common, too frequently offered, they will transform into clichés themselves.
Fantasy is a dynamic, changing genre and it should remain that way: fantasy should be classic, or visionary; it should explore the philosophies the writer has, righting the world in his or her eyes, or it should enhance a world, expose a single (or handful of) thing(s) that the writer feels worthy of discussion. A book is essentially a kind of discourse: what is written between the lines of a novel is what the writer is saying. It is this that makes the story, regardless of a classic approach, or a complete abandonment of the foundations.
Sam Sykes (the Aeon’s Gate series) said that all too often the writer’s own “voice” is left by the wayside whilst critique and review of a book centres entirely on the plot, world and setting. All, Sykes says, are irrelevant and can be taught, whilst the voice is the only truly original offering to any story, and, in fact, the only part that really matters when it comes down to the wire.
I have to agree.
That’s why I maintain that Songs is an excellent debut, despite its reliance on classic fantasy. The novel makes its own the themes and tropes that the grandfathers of fantasy left us, and presents them gleaming and polished, new and proud. Charlton is precisely the same, and an advocate of the fact that classic fantasy will never die.
And it will never die because of books like Songs. The more experimental, shocking, gritty side of fantasy fiction can evolve and change as it wishes, moving all the further from its roots—and this is a constant source of entertainment and fascination as new, talented writers demonstrate just what can be done within the lacking confines of fantasy fiction—but fantasy fiction will always exhibit examples like the above, precisely like Charlton’s and Cooper’s offerings, and it is that widening breach that makes the constantly changing world of SFF so damn satisfying a genre to live within.