Kate Constable's young adult fantasy The Singer of All Songs takes place in a world divided on several levels: geographical, political, magical, spiritual. Her narrative concerns itself with both possible and failed resolution of the conflicts thus entailed. In doing so, she avoids the conventional fantasy tropes—though the quest for Powers does, at times, fall into plot-coupon mode—in order to critique the hubris of autocracy and advocate an alternate model of synthesis through cooperation.
This theme is evident from the introduction of Constable's heroine, Calwyn, a Daughter of Taris privy to the music of ice-magic. The Daughters of Taris are isolated behind their Wall of ice; they engage in trade, but the trade is with Outlanders who "[fear] the magic of Antaris, and [are] right to fear it" (3). Calwyn is unexpectedly propelled into the role of helping save the world when an Outlander, Darrow, bypasses the Wall. As Darrow is himself a chanter, a worker of iron-magic, this small intrusion signals the greater, threatened collision of self-segregated domains. Calwyn discovers that she herself is the result of a similar transgression of established boundaries—her mother fled the realm of ice, returning only to die and leave baby Calwyn in the priestesses' care—and within herself she symbolizes the coming synthesis. Though she chafes at her narrow existence in Antaris, she comes to realize its virtues and comforts, as well as the value of what she learned there; it is due to her beekeeping duties that she manifests the Power of Beasts (235), after all.
The full litany of Powers is an impressive one:
Ninth is the Power of Tongue, which commands all speech and language and song. Eighth is the Power of Beasts, which commands all animals that creep and run and fly. Seventh is the Power of Seeming, which makes illusions visible and hides what is real. Sixth is the Power of Winds, which governs winds and waves and weather. Fifth is the Power of Iron, which commands any object that belongs to the earth, excepting any living thing, or air, or water, or fire. Fourth is the Power of Becoming, which holds the secrets of quickening and growth and change. Third is the Power of Fire, which commands all that is light and all that is hot. And there is our own craft, the Power of Ice, the power of our Goddess, who commands everything that is cold: ice and snow and freezing. And it is the power of all that is dark. . . . And it is the power of all that is dead. . . . Can you not guess the first of all the Powers? It is the greatest power of all, that which moves everything that is, and everything that is not. . . . It is the Goddess. (35-36)
The Goddess is key to proper use of the Powers: "The sorcerers of the Outlands . . . use their chantments for themselves, not as we do, for the good of us all; their power is corrupted" (37). This highlights the hubris of Samis, who would be the titular Singer of All Songs. He seeks to combine all the Powers in himself and to become "emperor of all Tremaris. . .[a]ll the lands" (51). When he tempts Calwyn, Darrow, and their companions, it is with a "grand vision" of a world restored to primal grace, himself as beneficent god and replacement for the Goddess (281).
Samis's quest for power is not only selfish, spurred as it is by temporal greed, but also lonely. He would gain power by making himself sui generis, which bears certain consequences. His "ghost ship," driven by his chantment, is one manifestation of this self-imposed isolation: ". . . the benches where the slaves should have been sitting were deserted. . . . And yet the oars moved; without a hand to move them, they rose and fell. . ." (119). The disembodied wind-voice in the Lost City expresses this more explicitly; Constable describes it as "an uncanny cry," "a howling that grew clearer at every moment, until it resolved itself into a human voice, into human speech," even "unearthly sobbing" (268). Samis's lost self speaks, expressing unbearable grief.
The other consequences of Samis's actions are not trivial, either. Darrow fears Samis for his Power of Seeming; almost the first thing we learn about Samis is his ability to deceive, and he almost tricks the Clarion of the Flame away from Calwyn by disguising himself as Darrow. The route by which Samis must obtain his Powers—coercion and trickery—causes an erosion of the soul, a hollowing of self. The "soft mocking echo" (277) that accompanies the companions as they attempt to confront Samis in the tower implies that Samis is no longer a person but an echo, a shadow of what he could have been and once was. His decay and his transgressions culminate, of course, in his death.
Two paradigms stand in opposition to Samis's vision. The first is personified in the ice-priestess Guardian, Tamen, who adheres to tradition and seeks to maintain the status quo. Faced with an opponent such as Samis, the efforts of those like Tamen serve merely as reaction after the fact of change. Tellingly, Tamen stands in opposition to Calwyn from the outset, fearing her as a challenger who may not accept the illusory comforts of stasis. Tamen is also hostile toward Darrow, preferring to enforce boundaries against outsiders rather than ally in common cause.
The High Priestess, Marna, reveals to Calwyn the origins of this separatism:
In the beginning of the world, there were nine Powers of chantment, and the Ancient Ones were masters of them all. They had gifts beyond our imaginings, and they practiced marvels that we cannot even dream of. And when the peoples of the world were divided up, the Nine Powers were divided too. We of Antaris, the children of our Goddess Mother Taris, were trusted with the second of the Powers, the craft of ice-call. . . .The secrets of the other Powers were given to other people. (35)
These Powers are segregated, their domains antithetical to one another; for instance, Darrow finds it difficult to use chantment to move the Fledgewing through water (106). This has its counterpart in the divided societies and the division of knowledge among the sexes. As Darrow tells Calwyn, "There are no women students in the colleges . . . [j]ust as there are no men permitted to study icecraft in Antaris. Your people are as bad as theirs" (117).
Separatism brings other costs with it. In Mithates, which once housed the Power of Fire, "chantment is outlawed, and the colleges of Mithates spend their days making weapons to sell to whoever will buy them. . . . [T]hey pride themselves on having no enemies. They'll sell spears to Rengan and swords to Baltimar, and call them both friend, and the two lands jumping to cut each other's throats" (99). Mithates's loss of its magic corresponds metaphysically if not literally to its position as arms dealer, a "neutral" party morally complicit in war; with the magic gone, spiritual life dies as well.
Trout derides Calwyn's belief in chantment and unwittingly makes the connection: "Chantments! You might as well believe in the gods" (128). When Calwyn asks if "everything you make here [is] designed to help in killing people," Trout misses the point entirely: "Of course not. . . . We have loads of inventions for defense" (131). Somehow one doubts that these defensive devices are purely nonlethal. It takes the death of the sailor Xanni—a foreigner, by Trout's lights—to make Trout realize the human cost of his work: ". . . actual combat, and bruises, and broken bones, and blood. Before Xanni, he'd never seen anyone die. He hadn't really thought about it before, what the weapons and war machines were for . . ." (203).
Divisons among groups can be equally as damaging as divisions between groups, as the Tree People of Spiridrell show. While Halasaa welcomes Calwyn and her fellow travelers, another of his kind says, "We want no Voiced Ones, no singers of songs here. Take them to your own place, and take the harm they bring upon yourself alone!" (250)—as though by denying the intruders she can ward away danger. Halasaa is an outcast because of his chantments, the Power of Beasts and the Power of Becoming. This integration and openness to "the force that binds and flows in all living things" (254) manifests in Halasaa's attitude that "[t]his life is a dance, and not a battle. We are all part of this world, not masters of it" (259). The Tree People, alas, cannot tolerate Halasaa's divergent opinions.
The fragmentation caused by the world's partitioning of Powers leads to another, perhaps deeper, consequence: the sundering of story. Marna only shares fragments of the creation myth with Calwyn, judging her unready. Toward the end of the tale, Calwyn reflects that "[t]here were no Tree People in those stories" the novices told among themselves, and
. . . no tales that told how they had been chased from their lands and driven deep into the wilderness, no stories of their hunger and cold, nor of their own silent dancing magic and the secrets of becoming. And what were the stories that the Spiridrelleen had told of the Voiced Ones, the people who had driven them away? She did not like to think what horrors those tales would hold. (264)
Nevertheless, Calwyn does consider the possibility of those horrors. She is no longer naive about the wonders of the world outside Antaris. Moreover, she is on the verge of a greater truth: a story told is a story shared. It operates as a vehicle of community, a way to share wisdom and grace or to make misery more bearable and ensure that those who suffer shall not be forgotten. In a sense, the partitioned Powers signify a kind of forgetting, an amnesia of the world's spirit so that its integral components are no longer aware of each other, lost, like the Ancient Ones.
The second ideological paradigm, that which defeats Samis's hegemony and supplants Tamen's separatism, is synthesis through cooperation, initially represented by Darrow. Calwyn's decision to accompany Darrow on his quest sows the first seeds of cooperation, signaled by her (re)discovery of the Clarion of Fire. Their escape from the pirates and the volcano is made possible by the combined efforts of Darrow with his iron-chantment, Calwyn's ice-chantment, Mica's windworking, and the engineer Trout and the sailor Tonno. The volcanic eruption itself suggests the underlying, unified source of the Powers:
Trout was staring at the peak. "I've heard tales about the fire-mountain of Doryus. But I never thought to see the river of liquid rock with my own eyes."
"Liquid rock?" said Mica with frank derision. "How can a rock be liquid, like water?"
"How can water be solid?" retorted Trout. "But you saw it turned to hard ice just now. It's the same with rock. If it's made hot enough, it melts." (218)
The boundaries between elements, and therefore Powers, are more elastic than Marna's recital of Powers might suggest.
In the interpersonal realm, hasty Calwyn and prickly Darrow must learn to overcome their quarrels and distrust. Darrow comes to see that "[w]e will fail in this quest, unless we can trust each other" (238), and the two attain a rapport that, Constable hints, will prove fruitful beyond this novel's boundaries. Tonno's salvation from the illusion of dead Xanni is his fictive family, including an attachment to a former stranger; he says to Mica, "You'll have to be my family now, lass" (273). In the denouement, no one member of this group has a mastery to rival Samis's; it is unnecessary, even counterproductive. Each plays a distinct but complementary role—even Trout's partial deafness has an unexpected benefit—and Samis is defeated by his own hubris.
Constable eschews a facile conclusion to the conflicts she has set up. Despite his defeat, "Samis was partly right. There is healing to be done in Tremaris, though he was wrong about the way to do it. One person can't control everything. . . . True power lies in many voices. But singing together, helping one another, as we have done—that's where strength lies" (295). What Calwyn and her friends are left with is not a solution to the world's divisions, but an ideal to strive for, represented by the educational wooden globe Darrow wrought for Calwyn. She knows that "[t]here would always be scars; no deep pain could be readily forgotten," but a "long, slow healing" can be achieved (296). Thus The Singer of All Songs ends with the image of Tonno in grief and needing comfort, a starting point for that healing. The point is not that Calwyn or Darrow, or anyone else, is an alternate Singer of All Songs. Constable implies that any such person could only become another Samis, however pure the initial intent. The Singer of All Songs is all of the characters together, and, by implication, the world entire in harmony.
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