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Monday, May 30, 2011

“Songs of the Earth” by Elspeth Cooper (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “Songs of the EarthHERE
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Elspeth Cooper was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne. Ever since she was read Ivanhoe as a bedtime story, she has been fascinated by storytelling. Now her lifelong fascination with language has been put into practice with Songs of the Earth, her debut novel, and the first book in The Wild Hunt series.

PLOT SUMMARY: The Book of Eador, Abjurations 12:14, is very clear: Suffer ye not the life of a witch. For a thousand years, the Church Knights have obeyed that commandment, sending to the stake anyone who can hear the songs of the earth. There are no exceptions, not even for one of their own.

Novice Knight Gair can hear music no one else can—beautiful, terrible music: music with power. In the Holy City of Dremen, that can mean only one thing: death by fire . . . until an unlikely intervention gives him a chance to flee the city and escape the flames.

With the Church Knights and their witchfinder hot on his heels, Gair hasn’t time to learn how to use the power growing inside him, but if he doesn’t master it, that power will tear him apart. His only hope is the secretive Guardians of the Veil, though centuries of persecution have almost destroyed their Order, and the few Guardians left have troubles of their own.

The Veil between worlds is weakening, and behind it, the Hidden Kingdom, ever-hungry for dominion over the daylight realm, is stirring. Though he is far from ready, Gair will find himself fighting for his own life, for everyone within the Order of the Veil, and for the woman he has come to love...

CLASSIFICATION: Songs of the Earth is a PG-13 traditional epic fantasy novel that reminded me at times of Terry Brooks, David Edding's The Belgariad, and Gail Z. Martin...

FORMAT/INFO: Songs of the Earth is 480 pages long divided over thirty-seven numbered/titled chapters and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third person, mainly via the protagonist Gair, but there are also several minor POVs. Songs of the Earth comes to an acceptable stopping point, but leaves many matters unresolved and is the first book in The Wild Hunt trilogy, which will be followed by Trinity Moon (Book 2) and The Dragon House (Book 3).

June 16, 2011 marks the UK Hardcover & Trade Paperback publication of Songs of the Earth via Gollancz. The North American version will be published by Tor in Spring 2012.

ANALYSIS: According to Gollancz, Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth is “the fantasy debut of 2011”. If only that were true. Instead, Songs of the Earth is a mediocre fantasy offering that fails on many different levels...

Originality is the novel’s most glaring problem. Not only is the magic system in Songs of the Earth highly derivative—shape-shifting, weaving shields, creating illusions, healing, speaking with the mind, controlling the four elements, etc.—but the world itself is sorely lacking in the creativity department, with races (Nordmen, elves, desertmen), religion (think the Roman Catholic Church) and various other aspects (chess, hypoglycemia) of the world culled from obvious sources. In fact, it seems like the only effort Elspeth Cooper made in creating her secondary world, was to change the names of things and alter a few minor details.

To make matters worse, world-building is practically nonexistent. For instance, it takes the author over 300 pages to reveal that Astolans are not human, while important concepts like the Veil, the Hidden Kingdom, the Founding Wars and the starseed are barely skimmed over. Then there’s the story, which is bloated with commonplace ideas like the hero blessed with incredible power, a school for the magically gifted, insurrection among the church’s leaders, a magical boundary that is weakening, and a power-hungry villain who once was a student of the good guys—the Guardians of the Veil.

Writing-wise, Elspeth Cooper’s prose is accessible and impressive at times—especially whenever the author is describing scenes of sword fighting, shape shifting, using the Song and romance—but dialogue and similes/metaphors are simplistic and seem more suited for a children’s book instead of an adult audience. Characters meanwhile, are difficult to visualize apart from vague impressions (old, young, tall, strong, fat, dark-haired, etc.), while understanding how a character thinks or feels is only marginally successful. This is particularly disappointing because the book contains a number of interesting themes that could have been explored in greater detail—Gair haunted by the memories of his torture; Gair’s church upbringing suddenly challenged by a different lifestyle and different beliefs; Aysha’s handicap; human/non-human prejudice; and Alderan committing evil in the name of the greater good. On the positive side, Gair is a charming protagonist while the relationships he develops with Aysha, Darin, Alderan and the like, are reasonably convincing.

Structurally, Songs of the Earth suffers from POVs that shift between characters without any rhyme or reason—like Alderan disappearing from the book for long stretches at a time; subplots that either take too long to develop or fail to reward the reader (Masen’s journey to warn the Guardians of the Veil, the coup against Preceptor Ansel, Elder Goran’s motive for hunting down Gair, etc.); and several questionable choices made by the author, including her decision to withhold key pieces of information (Gair’s shape-shifting ability, Tanith’s royal heritage, Savin’s evil nature and dark goals) for no logical reason that I can see, except maybe to provide dramatic effect during their eventual unveiling. As a result, Songs of the Earth feels very disjointed, like the author didn’t quite know what she was doing, and just ended up haphazardly putting together pieces as she was writing her book. These structural issues also cause the book to suffer through several periods (Gair’s journey to Chapterhouse, Masen’s journey, Gair’s life at Chapterhouse, Ansel & Danilar's narratives) that are just downright tedious.

Admittedly, the novel redeems itself some during the last fifty pages or so with tragic events that end Songs of the Earth on a powerful note, while introducing a number of interesting developments to be explored in the sequel. By that time though, it was a little too late as the book did not impress me enough to justify reading the second volume of The Wild Hunt trilogy. That said, I believe Trinity Moon has the chance to be much better than its predecessor, if Elspeth Cooper can improve her craft and if she can write a more focused and compelling narrative. Unfortunately for her debut, Songs of the Earth is a pedestrian fantasy novel plagued by unoriginality, simplistic writing, and structural flaws...


Phillip H. Tang said...

I haven't read the book yet, but I kind of enjoy the common elements in all fantasy novels.

Unknown said...

...that I really rather enjoyed.

On a purely technical level, Songs of the Earth might fall a little flat, sure, but aesthetically, I thought it was lovely.

From publication date here on out, I hereby delcare that reviews can no longer riff on the marketing nonsense on the cover of the ARC. I expect we can all agree that was maybe a little... overzealous.

Robert said...

Hi Phillip! To be honest, I have nothing against common elements in fantasy novels . . . Liane Merciel's debut immediately comes to mind, which I greatly enjoyed. The problem in Songs of the Earth is how little effort the author puts into making her ideas her own.

Peter Orullian's The Unremembered is another debut I criticized for being unoriginal, but at least in that book, the author put a tremendous amount of time & effort to try and put his own stamp on things.

Making matters worse for Songs of the Earth are the poor writing and execution. If the writing had been better, I think it would have been easier to overlook the novel's originality. Instead, it made them stand out more...

Niall, there's nothing wrong with disagreeing with me ;) After all, I'm just one person, and I definitely do not consider myself an expert on fantasy literature, book reviews, or whatnot. That said, I stand by my opinion that Songs of the Earth is a poorly written, unoriginal and mediocre fantasy debut.

Regarding the book’s tagline, I understand that is all just marketing, but I would like to think there’s a kernel of truth in such a statement. Tor made a similar claim in The Unremembered, and while I did not think the book deserved such praise, I can understand why the publisher made such a statement, because the novel had the potential to be great. In the case of the Songs of the Earth, the book was so far off the mark, I just couldn’t believe the publisher would even make such a claim...

Unknown said...

Nor could Elspeth, as I understand it! :)

Loren Sparrow said...

Hi! I'm reading the novel at the moment, and all I have to say is that I'm completely agree with the reviewer. The claim is too big to take it seriously, the same type of comparisson other novels took at the moment with J.R.R. Tolkien, in the way "the heir to master Tolkien" and all the stuff.

Anyway, I'm going to finish reading the novel this week. It's not a bad reading, but there are a lot better debuts to read.

'Bajo la Hiedra' will be published near the 20th June in Spain, and yes... 'The Name of the Wind' will appear also appear in the cover.

P.S. Hope my English are understandable... xD

Robert said...

Thanks for the comment Loren! I agree that Songs of the Earth is not bad reading. If it was, I probably wouldn't have even finished the book. Then again, I also agree that there are much better debuts out there. In 2011 alone, I would highly recommend Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick, The Winds of Khalakovo and The Desert of Souls...and that's just the debuts I've read so far. There are plenty more yet to be released...

Your English is very understandable btw :)

Anonymous said...

So many photo covers these days! Too bad, they are pretty unattractive and often a turn-off to the book. This one sure is. Give me artwork!

Robert said...

Unfortunately, the cover is another thing going against Songs of the Earth...

I agree though about photo covers. While they work in some instances, the fantasy genre is not one of them.

Loren Sparrow said...

Hi Robert. I forgot yo say that I'm a big fans of FBC, I read the reviews you and the team write, and of course, I use them to buy some books I consider of interest. One of them is The Winds of Khalakovo, that I recently ordered (this week, in fact, it'll arrive soon), so... thanks for the advice!

I also take note of The Desert of Souls... Arabian tales in a fantastic world? It seems very interesting!

I agre with you both, the english cover is not a good ones, think our spanish cover are a lot better, in the way it's not a photo:

I'll write my own review soon in my site.


Robert said...

Thanks for the compliment Loren! We really appreciate it :D I'm glad you decided to give The Winds of Khalakovo a chance...I hope you like it. The Desert of Souls is definitely worth a look if it sounds up your alley :)

The Spanish cover for Songs of the Earth is much better. I wish we would receive ARCs like that! Unfortunately, I don't read Spanish, but your blog looks nice :)

chrisd said...

I'm so glad someone mentioned the cover. I thought I was being petty but it stinks. If I saw it at the store I would pass it up.

Mark Lawrence said...

I'm glad someone (Niall) has pointed out that authors don't get to pick and choose the hyperbole on the cover or promotions as much as they might cringe at comparisons they know they haven't earned yet and that may even enrage fans of the Greats involved...

I've seen and understand the kick-back that such hype can generate... but it's not the writer's fault. And hey there's even the chance that Cooper (who I haven't yet read) may actually be as good as Rothfuss (who I haven't yet read)...

Robert said...

Chris, hopefully Tor will do a much better job with the cover for the US version :)

Mark, I admit that when I first started FBC, I would get taken in by the hype, much to my dismay most of the time. However, I've been doing this long enough now to ignore whatever the publisher is saying. In fact, I never read excerpts and avoid reviews, so whenever I do review a book, it’s my own thoughts and feelings that I’m expressing, not opinions influenced by outside sources.

In the case of Songs of the Earth, I used the publisher tagline merely as a comparison point. This is what the publisher is saying and this is what I think. Am I punishing the book because of the tagline? Not at all. I love discovering new authors, especially in the fantasy genre. So with or without the tagline, I would have read Songs of the Earth any way. And my thoughts would have remained the same.

In short, I like to think FBC offers reviews that are honest, detailed and respectful of the author, even if I happen to dislike a book. And I hope to do the same with your novel Mark, whenever I get around to reading it...

Mark Lawrence said...

I guess I was sensitized 2 days before commenting here by this thread:

which seemed to start with negative assumptions based on hype beyond my control. I had no problems with your review of 'Songs' (you stated your views with clarity and fairness IMOHO) but was I pleased to see the separation between the author and the hype mentioned explicitly in the comments. My publishers like to compare me with GRRM - I would never make any such claims and don't think they are justified.

It's entirely possible that when I read 'Songs' I'll share your opinion of it. I've seen good reviews and not so good - but since Elspeth Cooper and Peter Orullian are sharing my own path in many ways (debut 2011 authors enjoying significant support from large publishers) I'm taking a close interest in how they fare, so I'll read the books regardless.


Robert said...

I understand where you're coming from Mark. To be honest, I've been hearing a lot of good things about your debut, but for the most part, I've steered away from any reviews or discussions so I can make my own assessment when I read your novel. As of now, I just have a few more books to review before I start reading yours...

Anonymous said...

I can honestly say that in 30+ years of reading everything and anything I have never read a book that was more confusing to me, and I have read some really dime store novels. I had no problem with premise or characters and enjoyed the writing style quite a bit. However I found the editing to be really poor. Characters start a scene then disappear only to be included in the exit from the scene. Character names and their race names where used interchangeably multiple times in the same paragraphs, which is fine until two people of the same race are in the room together. And scenes ended so abruptly and oddly to be followed by seemingly random and unconnected segues.
There was one point where we went from chess game to being locked outside that literally made me think that a chapter or paragraph had gone missing.
I have never experienced a book that constantly pulled me out of the story to try and figure out where/when characters and actions have disappeared to. Despite this I wouldn't discourage people from reading this book I just found the story flow to be jumpy and disjointed.
Please forgive the anonymity but I just didn't have the strength or patience to go through another account creation today :)


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