With her debut novel Songs of the Earth, it would be difficult to say that Elspeth Cooper presents readers with a particularly innovative take on the typical epic fantasy tale. Instead Cooper, with promising dexterity, extends an exciting version of a familiar story. Songs of the Earth fully embraces genre tropes, is not ashamed of it, going for the most part from strength to strength, despite a few missteps and shortcomings. This may not quite be the outstanding fantasy debut it was touted as, but Cooper makes a commendable attempt at that title, resulting in a solid novel.
Gair is under a death sentence.
He can hear music - music with power - and in the Holy City that means only one thing: he’s a witch, an he’s going to be burnt at the stake. Even if he could escape, the Church Knights and their witchfinder would be hot on his heels while his burgeoning power threatens to tear him apart from within.
There is no hope...
...none, but a secretive order, themselves persecuted almost to destruction. If Gair can escape, if he can master his own growing dangerous abilities, if he can find the Guardians of the Veil, then maybe he will be safe.
Or maybe he’ll discover that his fight has only just begun.
Gair’s story is that of many a fantasy hero that we’ve observed over the years. Not appearing to be particularly bright or talented at he does, an unfortunate sequence of events leads to an aged foreigner revealing to him that he holds potential beyond that which we envisioned. Thankfully, Cooper has the tact to spare us the introduction of this story and starts her tale at the crucial moment (or near enough) where Gair is told by Ansel that he has powerful, and long-forgotten, capacities. From there, she launches into an elaborate recounting of Gair’s travels to, yes, a magical academy.
Please do not read my tone as ungrateful towards Songs of the Earth - I liked it. Quite a bit actually. This is a story I love, but I’ve seen it a few times before. Cooper makes up for it by displaying above par writerly skills, and a knack for fashioning absorbing characters, however small their role maybe. This is a talent she puts to particularly good use with Gair, who despite a few glaring inconsistencies in characterization, remains a thoroughly interesting character.
Because it is the nature of the tale she is telling, Cooper is not afraid of including ‘larger than life’ events, even by epic fantasy standards. Her approach to magic, the ‘Song’ heard by Gair and other ‘Guardians of the Veil,’ though still not very original, is intriguing, as are the passages dedicated to Gair’s apprenticeship in its usage. Certain high-profile fantasy novels who will remained unnamed have accustomed most of us to the customary ‘magic academy’ type of story, so it’s nice to see Cooper deliver that holds up to these without outright emulating them.
Songs of the Earth moves along at a brisk pace, and whereas the fast-forwarding of the inevitable travel bits is welcomed, the speed of the story is also occasionally detrimental to its own progression. There is one time-lapse section that spans no more than a month or two, in which he apparently makes improves his control of the Song enough to better an other practitioner. Now I know this is purely nitpicking to a lot of you, but to be honest, even I can get past small worldbuilding abnormalities and occasional deus ex machina, however I found it a shame that Cooper felt the need to rush through her own, hugely compelling, creation.
Songs of the Earth is not your average fantasy - Elspeth Cooper’s emerging talent as a writer make sure of that - yet it is not either anything that hasn’t been seen before. Originality is not everything, but at this point, it is all that Songs of the Earth, and the rest of the ‘Wild Hunt’ series is missing to bring it to the next level. Certainly, this first volume in the series is recommendable, but it will be necessary for Cooper to push the boundaries in the following novels for this series to become a staple of fantasy readers. Songs of the Earth was released in June by Gollancz in the UK, with no news on a US publication.
My Rating: 4 out 5
Reading Age: 14 and up
Elspeth Cooper's Website: http://www.elspethcooper.com/
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