Songs of the Earth is the debut novel of Elspeth Cooper and the first in an projected trilogy. Its greatest strength is that it is very much an old school, traditional fantasy epic. Unfortunately, that is also its greatest weakness.
The protagonist is Gair, a young man living in faux-medieval Europe, complete with knights, swords, and a powerful religious organization that rules all, modeled closely after the Catholic Church. Gair's story will not come across as particularly original to those familiar with the conventions of the epic fantasy genre, or even those familiar with Harry Potter. An orphan of unknown parentage, Gair is raised by well meaning but narrow minded stepparents who are alarmed to discover, when Gair is a child, that he has magic powers. Under the Church's laws witches (a term applied to both men and women in the book) are to be burned at the stake, which ironically makes Gair's parents decide to ship him off to the Church's boarding school for Knights of the Faith. There Gair is to be trained from childhood to be a sort of half-monk half-assassin, preparing for a life of protecting the Church's teachings and cutting the heads off heathens. By the time Gair is twenty, however, he's caught doing magic again, and this time is forced to stand trial as a witch.
The very first scene of the book is, in fact, Gair's trial, which ends with him being banished rather than executed, much to the chagrin of certain Church elders. After being branded with the witch's mark and released Gair is picked up by Alderan, a wise, older gentleman, who soon reveals himself to be a fellow witch, traveling the country and looking for people like Gair. The two embark on a road trip that ends at yet another boarding school, this time one intended to train witches and help them control their powers. From there Gair undergoes the standard coming of age narrative, balancing a witty best friend, a classmate who turns into a nemesis, and a girl who's interested in him, all while learning to master his powers and struggling to attend all his classes. To add a few more tropes, Gair also discovers that his powers are more formidable than anyone could ever imagine (he's good at basically every kind of magic there is, while most are born with a limited number of skills), and by the end of the book it turns out that the only other person to ever rival Gair's aptitude is the greatest villain the world has ever seen, currently bent on destroying Gair and the academy.
The only deviation from formula in the entire novel is the main romantic plot—an affair Gair has with one of his professors, Aysha, whose unique skill is shifting into animal form (Gair is the only one who shares this skill, out of all the students who have ever attended the academy). This was possibly my favorite bit of the book, since Aysha is, in addition to being a foreigner and much older than Gair (he's about 21 by the time they get together), disabled and uses crutches to get around while in human form. However, the exotification of Aysha's appearance and background made the plotline a lot less appealing. When Alderan describes Aysha's homeland (which is obviously based on the Middle East) he says: "It's a desolate, desolate place, the deep desert especially, but also beautiful—seductive, even—and dangerous as a snake" (p. 91), a kind of amalgamation of every Orientalist trope. Aysha's homeland is "backwards," on the one hand, with slavery and prostitution considered normal (the book even emphasizes Gair's dismay at such things versus Aysha's nonchalance), but on the other her "eccentric" looks and habits make her more beautiful and appealing, with Gair repeatedly pausing to describe the shade of her skin or her black hair and why he finds it attractive.
Aysha's disability is handled well in the book until the scene where she and Gair begin their romantic relationship. Aysha falls on the floor while attempting to fix something in her apartment (a private space to which she invites no one but Gair) and Gair, unprompted, rushes over to forcefully pick her up and carry her to the sofa. Aysha protests loudly throughout, later explaining that she's long since learned to handle her body on her own and finds it disrespectful and intrusive when people try to manhandle her without her permission. Livid, she tries to strike Gair, who physically restrains her until she promises to "calm down" and stop hitting him. However, the first thing Aysha does upon being released is pull Gair down for a kiss, essentially implying that while her fists were saying no her heart was saying yes and she in fact sees Gair's actions as romantic rather than presumptuous.
Thus the beginning of Gair and Aysha's relationship undermines the previously nuanced portrayal of Aysha as a woman with a disability who has worked hard to determine her own boundaries and teach those around her to respect them. Gair, a young man from a sheltered background, seems to "magically" know what her needs are better than she does, and his violation of her rules is rewarded for no apparent reason.
Other than that, the worldbuilding and characterizations in the book are generally simplistic, relying on stereotypes or unexamined tropes. For example, the Church is described as a universally evil organization that forbids "philosophy, astrology and medicine" (p. 56), and aims "to control knowledge and keep people in ignorance" (p.57). Similarly, we know the Church official desperately trying to catch Gair and bring him back to face proper punishment is an antagonist because, in addition to hounding our hero, he's revealed to be a gay pedophile.
Gair is the hero because in addition to being humble and brave he's also unreasonably innocent and naïve. Despite growing up in a dormitory overseen by a sexual predator Gair has no notion that sexual abuse might exist, anywhere in the world. Despite growing up in a patriarchy closely modeled after the Middle Ages, Gair believes women should be treated equally and objects loudly whenever someone (always an antagonist) implies otherwise. The number one villain of the book, who has powers to rival Gair's, is described as "bred from the bone, black-from-the-womb evil" (p.392). A man who murdered his parents as a preteen and apparently decided to take over the world for no apparent reason. In short, the good characters are good and the bad characters are bad with not a single surprise anywhere in the novel.
The problem with Songs of the Earth is that it lacks any sort of self awareness. It adopts tropes too willingly without pausing to deconstruct or subvert them in any way. The writing itself is solid, the prose flows very well and the narrative structure is effective, which makes the book a smooth, easy read, but if one is looking for something more complicated than the very basics of male-centered epic fantasy, this is not the book to pick up.
Marina Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org) holds a degree in Film, Sociology, East Asian Studies, and several other subjects that make her resume seem completely made up. She's fluent in four languages and can order a stiff drink in a dozen more. In her spare time she enjoys writing articles, reviews, and short stories as well as fawning over other people's cats.
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