(2011) Elspeth Cooper, MacMillan, £18.99, hrdbk, 480pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09614-1
No pressure, but having a line like 'This is the fantasy debut of 2011' on the proof copy of Songs of the Earth does raise a few eyebrows and more than a little in the way of expectations, but I want to know why the illustration looks like horror writer Gary McMahon crouching down with a big sword and wearing Aragon-style garb. Apologies to Gary and everyone else if you donít think it looks like the up-and-coming horror author, but I still think it does. The blurb also hints that it might be a story in the style of Joe Abercrombie, or Patrick Rothfuss or Kristin Cashore, all authors I have heard of, but never actually read. But wham, bam, thank you Ms. Cooper, because we are straight into the action as novice Gair is about to be dragged from his cell after much inquisitive, and harsh questioning to be sentenced for witchcraft. Gair can hear the songs of the Earth and wield the power it brings a bit clumsily, but you would have thought given how dimly the Church views magic he would be a bit more careful than to get caught twice displaying his poor skills, but he does, and now he is about to be executed for his troubles.
Yet there is a sting early on in this tale, and more than a sting on Gairís hand, as the Preceptor passes his sentence which is surprisingly commuted to branding and banishment if Gair can get over the border fast enough, although some of the other members of the Churchís hierarchy have ideas of their own about how to deal with this outrage and breaking of tradition and protocol. Knights are dispatched to make sure that Gair never reaches the boundary. Fortunately, he is being helped by a stranger called Alderan who has several mine-shafts full of hidden depths and is surprisingly unruffled by Gairís predicament even when the Knights are being led by a Witchfinder who is doggedly determined, and always on Gairís heels, and in his head too. The pace and the plot does not let up in these opening stages, and Cooper plays, what I call the 'Stephen King Shining' card by frustratingly, but cleverly, switching the action away from Gair at a crucial moment to give us a tantalising glimpse of a Guardian of the Veil in action, steering a stag back through the barrier to the world where it belongs and doing a hasty repair job on the thinning Veil which holds back all sorts of nasties from entering Gairís world. If he can get away Gair could learn how to master the magic around him and become a Guardian in the process.
While not a reader of high fantasy I canít really say how original Songs of the Earth is, but to my weary old mind I was reminded of Star Wars given the similarities between the magic of the Song and the Force, Gairís orphan status, and his tutelage by the mysterious Alderan - that name does not help me to avoid the comparisons either. What works in Cooperís favour is the strength of her characterisation, and the manifestation of the Song, and a few twists and turns in Gairís story that rises him above being a conventional hero.
Songs of the Earth is a first novel, and it does show in places, particularly in the middle sections where Gair learns how to wield his power and forms various relationships (or not) with the Chosen Few around him. The delivery of some of the major plot strands is also a bit clunky akin to a driver crunching the gears while trying to make a three-point-turn and there are some passages where we get a bit of dialogue-driven info-dumping which could have been tweaked here and there, but by the time we reached the epilogue with some unrequited love going on, and sub-plots weaving their way onwards towards future titles in the series I was completely hooked by both the story and the improving writing style. Closing the book. I wished I could have reached out to the reading pile and plucked Trinity Moon Ė the next book in the 'Wild Hunt Trilogy' off the top Ė and started reading it there and then, which is as high in the way of praise that I can possibly give.
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