I’ve only been reading fantasy for about five years now. I did read all of Tolkien’s works and The Chronicles of Narnia when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I read Christopher Paolini’s Eragon that I got into the genre. Then I read books like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, James Clemens’ Banned and Banished, and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar. Very different titles, yet all of them have two things in common: they are all epic stories, and all have a very clear division of good and evil with straightforward protagonists to love and identify with.
It’s been a while since I last read one of this type of book I used to love so very much. Until I came across Elspeth Cooper’s debut Songs of the Earth, first in a trilogy titled The Wild Hunt, that is. The premise promises an interesting and original novel about a young man named Gair who lives in a Holy City and hears music with magic power. Because of this, the church calls him a witch and he is sentenced to death. When his situation seems hopeless, he hears of a secret order of magicians who may take him in… If only he can manage to escape his execution.
While I wouldn’t call this premise inaccurate, Songs of the Earth soon takes a turn to the conventional epic fantasy genre. The promised hopeless execution never happens. Instead, Gair is banished early in the story and meets a mysterious man, Alderan, who takes him on a journey to the secretive order called the Guardians of the Veil. From there, the story evolves in a predictable fashion. The Veil that the order guards is a magic wall holding back a nation of evil creatures, and Gair is nothing less than a super magician who will need to learn how to use his magic in order to save the world.
Lack of substance
As I said, I used to love books like Songs of the Earth. I used to marvel in the conventions of the epic genre, loving a good prophesied hero who would save his world from certain doom and would challenge the evil gods themselves. I still do like those kinds of stories, and Songs of the Earth was a particularly easy read. Cooper’s style of writing is very compelling and her prose is of high quality. However, I found myself longing for more depth. If anything, Songs of the Earth is a shallow book, lacking substance.
This lack of substance is evident in all aspects of the story, but it is most poignant in Cooper’s world building. Or rather, in the lack thereof. From the very start, with the introduction of the church, it is clear that we are dealing with an organization highly inspired by medieval Catholics, and Cooper does nothing to lead us away from this. Places visited on Gair and Alderan’s journey are described but lack the detail to set them apart from each other, and with the lack of other types of world building, I was left with the impression that this world is nothing but medieval Europe with different names and magic.
With the lack of world building, this magic is the only interesting element of Cooper’s world. It also seems to be a promising and original magic system: music that comes from the earth itself and can be used to perform magic. Unfortunately, it soon turns out that the magic is just your regular power or force, and the music is nothing but a way for magicians to perceive that force. What’s more, though the magic at first seems like a more scientific system like that of Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson, I had the distinct feeling that Cooper didn’t want her magic to be subject to any rules. In the middle of the book, as Gair’s abilities are tested, he suddenly shape shifts into a bird and flies away. These scenes of flying were some of the best written scenes in the book — along with the amazing swords-fighting scenes — but that use of the magic came as a complete surprise and makes no sense whatsoever compared to anything Cooper previously established about the magic. While I understand that the surprise of it might add to the appeal of the story, to me it displays a lack of foreshadowing and direction. That’s unfortunate, because a musical force of nature magic system holds great potential.
Stereotyped and awkward
Another element that had much potential but was poorly executed are the characters in Songs of the Earth. Articles on writing good characters often mention that your characters should be very identifiable individuals, but should do something unexpected and out-of-character every now and then. I’m quite certain Cooper has read these articles as well. Her characters are stereotyped to the point that they become dull. Of course, if you put a bunch of different stereotypes together, they are all quite unique. However, they lack anything to make them interesting. The out-of-character things that I mentioned were very blatant. For example, Gair would spend the entire journey hating the church for what they did to him, but then he would suddenly and randomly quote scripture to Alderan. On top of that, the dialogue in Songs of the Earth felt stiff and awkward.
Why should you read this book?
With Songs of the Earth, Cooper has proven she knows her way around words. The action scenes and pacing were extraordinarily good. Unfortunately, Songs of the Earth lacks the substance to set it apart. This book shows promise, but I found it lacking in most areas. I expect fans of Christopher Paolini or Terry Goodkind might enjoy this read, but fans of George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie probably won’t.