Thursday 8 December 2011

Fantasy as it used to be - Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

Tired of gritty fantasy with a cast list of scum and villainy that makes Mos Eisley look like Paradise Beach? Tired of books that turn the air blue just by reading them? Tired of tales that lack a moral compass?

Well, this one is for you. Songs of the Earth isn’t mould-breaking or innovative – it clings fast to numerous tropes of fantasy literature and will seem very familiar to well-read fans of the genre. It was likened in the publicity to Patrick Rothfuss but I tried not to let that put me off.

The story begins in media res, with Gair, the protagonist imprisoned and awaiting sentence for witchcraft. The setting is a fairly standard vanilla fantasy, mediaeval with a resprayed Catholic Church as one of the main power brokers in the world. It might have been interesting had Cooper developed an original theology since everything we discover about the church in this book sounds very familiar. Still, since many D&D worlds run along a mediaeval format, there is plenty in here to loot if you are looking for ideas for your cleric’s backstory.

The plot from there onwards will tick the boxes of anyone who likes their fantasy served up on a plate of Joseph Campbell. A mysterious old man takes Gair under his wing, acting as a cross between Captain Exposition and the Unreliable Narrator and conducts him to an academy where he can learn to use his powers properly. So far, so Earthsea, Hogwarts – or Star Wars. Or even Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Once he arrives, there is a period of settling in and the obligatory sequence where Gair makes an enemy (for no obvious reason other than I suppose said enemy is a trope of magic schools) of another student (hello Malfoy)

There is also a lurking villain who, needless to say, was once a student at said academy but turned to the Dark Side and now poses a threat to everyone due to something that seems to hark back to the Dungeon Dimensions from Pratchett, always threatening to break through to our world.
The villain is a brooding presence in the background of the narrative for quite some time; Cooper knows when to wheel him out for maximum effect and then slips some unpleasant back story in for him. Let’s hope he develops further in the next book.

The magic is something different – there’s no Vancian stuff here, no Codex of Eldritch Lore, no pointy hats. If you’re looking for something to replace the old D&D system, try this for ideas. The magic is described as The Song, which to me brought back memories of the Metaconcert in Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles and Charter Magic from Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series.

There’s no map – although somehow I felt that I was able to see one in my mind’s eye. There are enough hints of what’s out there to allow the world that Cooper is creating to seem realistic without being over-developed so early in the series. Some fantasy authors have their characters go off on a long world-wide wander just so that the reader can get the full benefit of the world the writer has created. Cooper is refreshingly restrained in this aspect, although there are some hints of locales that seem pregnant with potential for inclusion in the next book.

There is some very mild language, an ‘arse’ here and there but nothing that would make it unsuitable for the young adult reader – in fact, some very mild lurve scenes notwithstanding, I’m surprised that it wasn’t targeted at that specific audience.

My copy was 420 pages (other formats may vary) but in fact I felt it could have been longer with no loss of pace. The finale, which reminded me of the Battle of Hogwarts but so much better done here, could have been made more intense if space had allowed.

All in all, Cooper treads a well-worn path with a book that gives me that nostalgic glow for the days of yore when ‘edgy’ and ‘gritty’ hadn’t become literary buzzwords and you still had good guys to cheer and baddies to hiss.

The next volume is out in the spring of 2012 and the third for September 2013. So quite some time to wait.


  1. "Tired of books that turn the air blue just by reading them?"

    No, but I can still enjoy vanilla fantasy from time to time too. Thanks for the book review and, in case I'm not back again soon, Happy Holidays!

  2. "All in all, Cooper treads a well-worn path with a book that gives me that nostalgic glow for the days of yore when ‘edgy’ and ‘gritty’ hadn’t become literary buzzwords and you still had good guys to cheer and baddies to hiss."

    I prefer a slightly more nuanced ethical compass with more than two points (as opposed to binary morality), I'm not exactly prepared to embrace Joseph Campbell as my lord and saviour (Christopher Booker, on the other hand...) and the whole thing smacks of the fantasy-as-escapism style... but I do like the sound of that way of doing magic, and if it manages to be 420 pages of restrained, controlled writing, I might give it a go anyway.