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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 (marissa.go@gmail.com) 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.



Marina Berlin grew up speaking three languages in a coastal city far, far away. She’s an author of short stories who’s currently working on her first novel. You can follow her exploits on Twitter @berlin_marina or read more about her work at marinaberlin.org.
5 comments on “Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper”

I read this last year (and reviewed it here), and came away feeling much the same about it.
It has a few things going for it; Aysha really is an excellent character, at least until she's overcome by the twin inevitabilities inherent in being the first-volume love interest in a coming-of-age story. (The first you discuss here, the second I'll avoid so as not to spoil the experience for the rare reader who won't be able to see it coming.) Much of the rest is very muddled, though; the various stories don't sit at all well together.
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.
Yes! I could have powered rocket ships with the force of my eyerolling at that point.

I feel required to note that there is no such thing as a "gay pedophile." There are normal people, straight and gay, who enter into consensual adult relationships. Then there are pedophiles who by definition prefer people who are sexually undeveloped.

Nic - Yes! I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who had those opinions about Songs of the Earth. I also liked Aysha, right until the point where she became the Hero's Love Interest. (I often feel with characters like hers that I'd much rather read the book about her life than the book about Gair's.)
Mazarkis - What I meant by "gay pedophile" was that this was a person who was both gay and a pedophile, not that those two words formed a single identity.

John K.

I picked this book up despite knowing that this was likely to be the sort of fantasy that was least likely to surprise me. So let that statement provide a certain degree of advisory caution to my response to it. However, I'm always willing to give my preconceptions a shake up and despite poor past performances, seem perpetually willing to give Fantasy with a capital F, another try.
Anyone reading the review above will likely realize I was not rewarded in this case. Which is a real shame because Elspebeth Cooper is not just a really nice person but obviously a very competent writer. The prose is for the most part, silky smooth, perhaps to a fault. She can clearly lay out a scene, evoke places and people, describe action and drama. So it's all the more disappointing to see these skills put to work on what is second or third rate imagining of your generic fantasy tropes at best, in my opinion.
No surprises is an understatement, and you could have had a checklist beside you while reading of the most overused tropes in the genre and watched them magically mark themselves off, nearly all the way down the list. If I had come across it in say, 1991, I might have thought it was a fun romp self-conciously trying to recapture the unexamined fun of similar novels from a decade earlier. But in 2011, it feels very tired and wrung out. Thirty years off the mark.
Perhaps to others, this would be a breath of fresh air floating across the ether from an anodyne session of a 1980s table top roleplaying game. Only minus the dungeons and the dragons, or anything else exciting in the way of fantasy flora and fauna. We do have some ghosts, and some manifestation of a celtic styled 'Wild Hunt," but even this feels remarkably unmoored from its real folkloric setting.
Having cut my fantasy milk teeth on the brilliant trilogy (and more recently, tetralogy) of Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and years later enjoyed the very good Riddle-Master of Hed series by Patricia A. McKillip, I couldn't but feel disappointed watching Cooper seem to go over some of the highlights of these, but never rise high enough to match the originals. And of course, no talking dragons or dead earthmaster children anywhere in sight.
And despite the author's obvious knowledge of how to write dialogue and make her characters move about, the main protagonist is a rather limp noodle. A male Mary-Sue of epic dimensions, who doesn't have anything to leaven his good-at-everything-blandness such as sarcasm, intelligence, a funny walk, or even much of a personality. Perhaps a talking-animal sidekick? Really, this is about all Songs of The Earth seems to be missing, some talking wolves. The villain as noted, isn't really any more deeply cut, just snipped out of a flat cloth of 'pure evil' as opposed to the bolt of 'annoyingly good' that Gair is made from.
Again, if you still like this sort of thing, and don't mind the above faults, then it may go down a treat. It certainly won't catch in one's throat, except er, for some questionable issues about gender, religion, politics, sexual otherness and a dose of bland Orientalism which admittedly, isn't any more bland than its Occidentalism.
Now I do apologize unreservedly if my tone has come across the least bit snide or overly critical. This really isn't a bad book, in the standard sense. But I can't say it's a good one in any sense either, which is a real shame because I have the impression that the author is capable of writing one, a really good one, if only they were willing to take some chances and try to find a story that wasn't already so well known to us.
It's not a book that made me sorry I purchased it or even read it, partly I suppose because it's a fast read. But it did leave me wondering why anyone would spend the hard graft to write it, just so, because, well, it seems like you could do so much more interesting things with your time. And no reader would be poorer.

I also liked the way the author described magic and its use. It revealed a sort of poetic, original vision that I wish had been incorporated throughout the entire book.
But, yes, left agreeing with the original review (and somewhat more charitably than a couple of the comments). The book is so good at being what it is that you're left wishing it were more.

 

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