“Suffer ye not the life of a witch.” So it is written in the scripture of the Holy Suvaeon Knights. Bad luck then for Gair, a Novice Knight, that he can hear the “songs of the earth” that allow him to perform the forbidden magic. The young man is caught in the act, thrown in a dungeon, and tortured, but before he can suffer the usual fate of a witch and gets burned at the stake, the Church Preceptor intervenes and surprisingly allows him to leave with nothing more than a branding. An old man named Alderan takes Gair under his wing. Together they begin the long journey to the Chapterhouse, where Gair can learn more about his magical talent…
Elspeth Cooper’s debut novel Songs of the Earth starts off with a solid hook. A young man is condemned and tortured for his sins, but despite all that is done to him, he clearly remains faithful. The powerful clergy is mostly presented in a negative light, so the reader easily identifies with the young man as he flees his tormentors and tries to make a new beginning. Hello, underdog story.
Unfortunately the hook is about as good as it gets for this novel, because after its promising start Songs of the Earth devolves into a conventional fantasy that just doesn’t bring enough originality to the table. To be fair, there are several positives here, and it’s clear that Elspeth Cooper has a bright future ahead of her, but unfortunately Songs of the Earth’s strengths are overwhelmed by its problems.
One of the novel’s main issues is Gair, a protagonist who is simply too recognizable for anyone who regularly reads fantasy. He’s an orphan. He has magical powers that make him an outcast. He enters a magical learning organization where he can learn more about his gifts, because if left unguided the magic can hurt its users. During his initial testing, he discovers that his magic is incredibly powerful. This allows him to rise through the ranks faster than usual. He finds a cheerful friend to help him settle in at magic school, but he also immediately gains a rival. If there’s a checklist somewhere of features you’d expect to find in the average fantasy hero, Gair would have all too many boxes checked off.
In addition to being a composite of existing fantasy characters, Gair is also just too uninteresting to carry a novel. He fails to show much in the way of personality for most of the story’s first half. He feels, for want of a better word, faceless. Gair finds a love interest in the second half of the novel, and at that point he finally begins to show some character and become more than just a fantasy hero template, but until then you’re basically reading a self-discovery story about a character who is not captivating or original enough for that format. (Interestingly enough, the second half of the novel also contains some of the more original plot elements and moves at a faster pace. Songs of the Earth definitely picks up in quality after the midway point.)
Unfortunately the main character is not the only problem here, although it’s probably the biggest one. First of all, there are what I considered two fairly obvious plot holes. I won’t go into detail about them here to avoid spoilers, but if you choose to read Songs of the Earth, you’ll probably spot them yourself. Second, the magic in the novel feels too amorphous: people who have the gift only have to call on its power to do things such as control the elements or, more rarely, shift into different shapes. It falls in the trap of seeming too easy: if you have the gift, you can perform magic by a simple act of will. An example (and this actually goes back to one of those plot holes I mentioned earlier) is Gair teaching himself to do something that’s considered incredibly difficult, even by the masters at the Chapterhouse, when he was only a child and without any kind of guidance. Admittedly, people have different levels of strength and most can only command one of the different branches of magic, but it still feels too much like vague hand-waving.
Even if you disregard the protagonist, the plot holes and the magic system (or lack thereof), the novel still often reads like a collection of fantasy clichés. Its voice is too recognizable, with almost-standard euphemisms and sentences like “You’re as tense as a nun in a bawdy-house” that could have come from dozens of other novels. There’s a travelogue section during which the characters travel by road (they eat stew) and by sea (the captain is a drunk). It’s just all too recognizable.
Still, there are a few reasons why I plan to keep an eye on Elspeth Cooper and why I believe we may see much better work from this writer in the future. Her prose is, for the most part, incredibly smooth and polished for a debut author. Even though I wasn’t happy with most of the content of this novel, it’s a winner in terms of style. There are a few rough spots, and pacing is an issue, but for the most part this novel reads a lot more smoothly than you might expect. The second major positive aspect here are the side characters. As bland and forgettable as Gair is, Songs of the Earth has a sparkling supporting cast: the Church Preceptor who is sick but trying to hang on to health and power; Alderan the mysterious leader of the Chapterhouse; Tanith the healer; and especially Aysha, who has more personality than all of them combined. The chapters told from the perspectives of Ansel and especially Masen, the mysterious keeper of the Veil, are welcome changes of pace and save the novel from being completely uninteresting. However, none of these characters fall in the conventional fantasy hero mold of the orphan with special powers who makes it to magic school and becomes a hero and fulfills his destiny, so the novel unfortunately settles for Gair as the point of view character for most of its length.
There’s a big market for novels with this type of hero and these types of story elements, and because of this, I believe that Songs of the Earth may do better than you might expect based on this review. That’s actually a good thing, because Elspeth Cooper shows a tremendous amount of potential. The bright spots in this novel are very bright; it’s just that they are overshadowed by its shortcomings. I will keep an eye out for future novels by this author, because I’m sure she will come up with some great work, possibly even including future novels in this series.
Further reading: Justin Landon from Staffer’s Musings gets credit for pointing out one of the two plot holes I mentioned above during our chats about this novel. You can read his review here. Other reviewers had a very different opinion of this novel, and I feel that it’s only fair to link to one of the more positive ones here too: Niall’s review at The Speculative Scotsman. Finally, they say that the proof is in the pudding, so should you wish to get a sample of Elspeth Cooper’s debut, you can find excerpts from the novel here and here.