“Define magic … If you define it as a natural force or energy that is an intrinsic part of every living thing and the world around you, then yes, the Song is magic.”
- TITLE: Songs of the Earth
- AUTHOR: Elspeth Cooper
- RELEASE DATE: 16th June 2011 (UK)
- PUBLISHER: Gollancz
One of Gollancz’s big releases this year has been the debut novel by UK fantasy novelist, Elspeth Cooper, Songs of the Earth. The first of The Wild Hunt series, Songs of the Earth claims to take the usual fantasy cliché of farmboy-meets-adventure and offer something new to the genre. Certainly, there are lingering clichés within fantasy fiction, although I strain to think of when I’ve last encountered this cliché—but I appreciate the point being made: Songs of the Earth strives to proffer a different kind of epic fantasy experience.
Set in a world that could almost be our own, especially if we include folk mythology and faerie tales of a hidden realm where the Other Kind dwell, Songs of the Earth heavily resembles a medieval, church-ruled Europe, where witchcraft is loathed, feared and outlawed. In keeping with the images evoked by the setting, with Church Knights enforcing order, witches—or suspected witches—are burned at the stake.
Witches can hear music; music laced with power that thrums and reverberates through their every fibre. Gair is one such witch, and facing a death sentence, he waits for his trial, alone and afraid, seeking comfort in the Goddess. Given to the Church for training, Gair’s crime weighs doubly on his heart: he understands the teachings of the Church, understands that magic is the tool of infidels, and yet… he yearns to touch the Song, yearns to wield and shape it.
It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that through some twist of fate—or mercy—Gair is not executed, much to the disquiet of the Church Elders, and allowed to leave. He is exiled and forbidden to return, lest the charges be brought again and his original fate exacted. A brand on his hand ensures he is marked a witch, and he is allowed to leave, as the Preceptor’s word is law.
Intercepted by an old man, Gair is offered help to cross the border safely—out of the Church’s hands and into his exile. But with trouble hot on his heels, with more than one motive against letting him go, despite the Preceptor’s verdict, Gair can’t possibly realise how much he needs Alderan, or just how close he’ll become to the old man.
Gair’s journey takes him far from his beloved Leahn, and towards a new life, where everything he ever learned at the Motherhouse is about to be turned upside down, and illuminated brightly, as he realises just what he is—and what the Song inside him as he hears it means.
Although the world so closely resembles our own—Christianity included—the setting works, and through Cooper’s constant innovations and “tweaks” on an existing world, it becomes something detached from Medieval Europe, even with the notion of Church Knights, witches and holy wars with a history of infidel blood upon which the Church is founded. Furthermore, the world fades into the background in lieu of the characters, whose emotions, conflicts and personalities drive the story forwards.
Gair is our main POV character, and Cooper crafts him well enough that whatever Gair suffers, the reader suffers. You feel what he feels. The emotion is conveyed effortlessly with all the skill of a hand that has been writing novels for decades. In regards to character, Cooper needn’t change a thing as she develops her series, rather, she should carry on in much the same vein and her new characters—and current ones—will merely continue to grow as she does as a writer, maturing with the progression of the story.
Emotive, yet crystal clear writing envelops the superbly-written characters in a solid, believable world that drives forwards the story with ease, creating an exciting page-turner that will have you reading until the small hours, and then past dawn.
Despite the fact that there were themes included that I usually avoid—shapeshifting, mainly—the strength of Cooper’s plot, and the sheer likeability of her characters drowned out any problems I might have had. There will always be something in a book a reader doesn’t like, something small and insignificant. And it remains just that; insignificant.
Filled with real, human emotion, and a villain that fully conveys a shockingly human need for power, dominance and progression, with nary a care for the consequences—as cruel as a child whose concepts of good and evil have been shattered and skewed—even the antagonist of Songs of the Earth looks an old cliché in the face and merely turns away, choosing another path. Yes, the villain is vicious, relentless and cruel, but he exhibits only a human sort of evil in his reckless abandon and selfishness. Coupled with the setting, and faced with the rest of the cast, Cooper’s choice of antagonist works exceedingly well.
With a supporting cast that you grow to know and love, sharing in Gair’s experiences as he discovers life outside the Motherhouse—as he matures, learns and becomes a man—the first instalment of The Wild Hunt is a brilliant indication of just how fantastic this series might become.
An effortless debut, filled with good honest classic fantasy tropes, a memorable cast, and easy originality, Songs of the Earth was an absolute pleasure to read. Slated for release in March 2012, Trinity Moon, book two of The Wild Hunt couldn’t come soon enough.
It’s safe to say, Elspeth Cooper is a star in the making, and with a debut like this, I can only wonder as to the sheer talent she’ll exhibit if given a few more years in the game.