Sunday, May 29, 2011

“Songs of the Earth” by Elspeth Cooper (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “Songs of the EarthHERE
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Watch the Book Trailer HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Elspeth Cooper was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne. Ever since she was read Ivanhoe as a bedtime story, she has been fascinated by storytelling. Now her lifelong fascination with language has been put into practice with Songs of the Earth, her debut novel, and the first book in The Wild Hunt series.

PLOT SUMMARY: The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14, is very clear: Suffer ye not the life of a witch. For a thousand years, the Church Knights have obeyed that commandment, sending to the stake anyone who can hear the songs of the earth. There are no exceptions, not even for one of their own.

Novice Knight Gair can hear music no one else can—beautiful, terrible music: music with power. In the Holy City of Dremen, that can mean only one thing: death by fire . . . until an unlikely intervention gives him a chance to flee the city and escape the flames.

With the Church Knights and their witchfinder hot on his heels, Gair hasn’t time to learn how to use the power growing inside him, but if he doesn’t master it, that power will tear him apart. His only hope is the secretive Guardians of the Veil, though centuries of persecution have almost destroyed their Order, and the few Guardians left have troubles of their own.

The Veil between worlds is weakening, and behind it, the Hidden Kingdom, ever-hungry for dominion over the daylight realm, is stirring. Though he is far from ready, Gair will find himself fighting for his own life, for everyone within the Order of the Veil, and for the woman he has come to love...

CLASSIFICATION: Songs of the Earth is a PG-13 traditional epic fantasy novel that reminded me at times of Terry Brooks, David Edding's The Belgariad, and Gail Z. Martin...

FORMAT/INFO: Songs of the Earth is 480 pages long divided over thirty-seven numbered/titled chapters and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third person, mainly via the protagonist Gair, but there are also several minor POVs. Songs of the Earth comes to an acceptable stopping point, but leaves many matters unresolved and is the first book in The Wild Hunt trilogy, which will be followed by Trinity Moon (Book 2) and The Dragon House (Book 3).

June 16, 2011 marks the UK Hardcover & Trade Paperback publication of Songs of the Earth via Gollancz. The North American version will be published by Tor in Spring 2012.

ANALYSIS: According to Gollancz, Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth is “the fantasy debut of 2011”. If only that were true. Instead, Songs of the Earth is a mediocre fantasy offering that fails on many different levels...

Originality is the novel’s most glaring problem. Not only is the magic system in Songs of the Earth highly derivative—shape-shifting, weaving shields, creating illusions, healing, speaking with the mind, controlling the four elements, etc.—but the world itself is sorely lacking in the creativity department, with races (Nordmen, elves, desertmen), religion (think the Roman Catholic Church) and various other aspects (chess, hypoglycemia) of the world culled from obvious sources. In fact, it seems like the only effort Elspeth Cooper made in creating her secondary world, was to change the names of things and alter a few minor details.

To make matters worse, world-building is practically nonexistent. For instance, it takes the author over 300 pages to reveal that Astolans are not human, while important concepts like the Veil, the Hidden Kingdom, the Founding Wars and the starseed are barely skimmed over. Then there’s the story, which is bloated with commonplace ideas like the hero blessed with incredible power, a school for the magically gifted, insurrection among the church’s leaders, a magical boundary that is weakening, and a power-hungry villain who once was a student of the good guys—the Guardians of the Veil.

Writing-wise, Elspeth Cooper’s prose is accessible and impressive at times—especially whenever the author is describing scenes of sword fighting, shape shifting, using the Song and romance—but dialogue and similes/metaphors are simplistic and seem more suited for a children’s book instead of an adult audience. Characters meanwhile, are difficult to visualize apart from vague impressions (old, young, tall, strong, fat, dark-haired, etc.), while understanding how a character thinks or feels is only marginally successful. This is particularly disappointing because the book contains a number of interesting themes that could have been explored in greater detail—Gair haunted by the memories of his torture; Gair’s church upbringing suddenly challenged by a different lifestyle and different beliefs; Aysha’s handicap; human/non-human prejudice; and Alderan committing evil in the name of the greater good. On the positive side, Gair is a charming protagonist while the relationships he develops with Aysha, Darin, Alderan and the like, are reasonably convincing.

Structurally, Songs of the Earth suffers from POVs that shift between characters without any rhyme or reason—like Alderan disappearing from the book for long stretches at a time; subplots that either take too long to develop or fail to reward the reader (Masen’s journey to warn the Guardians of the Veil, the coup against Preceptor Ansel, Elder Goran’s motive for hunting down Gair, etc.); and several questionable choices made by the author, including her decision to withhold key pieces of information (Gair’s shape-shifting ability, Tanith’s royal heritage, Savin’s evil nature and dark goals) for no logical reason that I can see, except maybe to provide dramatic effect during their eventual unveiling. As a result, Songs of the Earth feels very disjointed, like the author didn’t quite know what she was doing, and just ended up haphazardly putting together pieces as she was writing her book. These structural issues also cause the book to suffer through several periods (Gair’s journey to Chapterhouse, Masen’s journey, Gair’s life at Chapterhouse, Ansel & Danilar's narratives) that are just downright tedious.

Admittedly, the novel redeems itself some during the last fifty pages or so with tragic events that end Songs of the Earth on a powerful note, while introducing a number of interesting developments to be explored in the sequel. By that time though, it was a little too late as the book did not impress me enough to justify reading the second volume of The Wild Hunt trilogy. That said, I believe Trinity Moon has the chance to be much better than its predecessor, if Elspeth Cooper can improve her craft and if she can write a more focused and compelling narrative. Unfortunately for her debut, Songs of the Earth is a pedestrian fantasy novel plagued by unoriginality, simplistic writing, and structural flaws...

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