Though I’ll probably be unaware of the fact as I’m writing, a large amount of the words and expressions in this article will have been coined by Shakespeare. After all, he’s the guy who gave us “advertising,” “star-crossed,” and “gilding the lily,” though the latter is a sort of abbreviation of the beautiful line “to gild refined gold, or paint the lily.” In creating that particular metaphor, the Bard managed two things: a beautiful turn of phrase and a profound meaning.
Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth bears a curious relation to this phrase, for it is full of gilding, in the form of beautiful prose that, while not reminiscent of Shakespeare, is nevertheless full of a quiet poignancy; the (metaphorical) lilies, however, are missing. Its language promises content that the story simply doesn’t deliver. The book is a fun, quick read, but hardly has the depth, innovation, and character development of the stories it clearly emulates (or does a little more than emulate, really, creating what seems to be an amalgam of the popular stories of our culture).
The novel begins with the witchcraft trial of the protagonist, Gair – for he can hear the beautiful, terrible music inside of him, the Song that lets him perform magic and condemns him to death by the Church. He miraculously escapes with his life, helped along by wise old mentor Alderan (yes, like the planet). Alderan fulfills the regular role of the wise old mentor, though he does seem to take a leaf too many out of Obi-Wan’s book, keeping both information and his own gift from Gair and explaining the nature of the Song in a way that’s a little too familiar:
“Define magic. If you define it as a natural force or energy that is an intrinsic part of every living thing and the world around you, then yes, the Song is magic.” – pg. 106
In case you’re not geek enough to have most of Star Wars memorized, let me refresh your memory with Obi Wan’s description of the Force:
“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. (A New Hope)
Just a tad similar, eh? Following this interlude, Alderan takes Gair to a school of magic, a literary trope that any author in our day and age is probably best off avoiding because comparisons with Harry Potter inevitably ensue. It’s only towards the end that the story takes something like a turn of its own, though the setting remains that generic sword and sorcery land that we have Tolkien to thank for.
With that said, there are, of course, original aspects to the story. The Song, for example, is a natural, organic force, a music the magician hears inside him and whose notes echo the nature of the spell he casts. Cooper also provides the beginnings of what could be a fascinating mythology. For example, a Goddess replaces a God in a monotheistic religion vaguely resembling Christianity; there’s also a Veil between the worlds (which is, unsurprisingly, tearing), beyond which the Hidden Kingdoms are a sort of Hell whose intersection with Gair’s world would bring about the Apocalypse. This is a variation of the Christian mythos that I, for one, would be keen to see developed.
There’s a very big and very unfortunate downfall to the story, though, and that’s the black and white perspective. Gair seems to have absolutely no flaws whatsoever: he’s really good at magic, good at sword fighting, strong, intelligent, kind, polite, considerate, honorable, honest…. His enemy, however, is completely, irrevocably evil – from the cradle: “bred in the bone, black-from-the-womb evil,” as Alderan describes him. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to two other great villains, Tom Riddle and Darth Vader, this antagonist, too, thirsts for too much knowledge and too much power:
“By the time he was fifteen we had exhausted our knowledge, but he was still hungry, and that’s when he found a new teacher, one over whom we had no control. There are books in the library which detail powers that gaeden [Guardians of the Veil] long ago had, but which we have not seen here ourselves. Savin devoured these books, and he sought to unearth those lost talents for himself.” (pg. 392)
Yet fantasy and science fiction have some of the best ambiguous characters ever – rascals with a heart of gold, thieves with honor, traitors turned good such as Han Solo, Mal Reynolds, Severus Snape, Locke Lamora, even Darth Vader himself – characters who have choice, and the beauty of whose stories relies precisely on the ambiguity of the question of good and evil.
It doesn’t help, either, that Cooper provides a sort of Philosophy 101 in her dialogue, rehashing the arguments one might hear in a high school European history class. The Church is a hypocritical institution, the acts that the Church defines as sin are not necessarily sin, and there is no straightforward answer to the question of good and evil are all ideas that anyone who’s been paying attention has probably heard at least once in their life.
One might hope that for the next novel (coming in the next year or so, if news on the matter are to be believed) Gair develops some flaws or at least a darker side to his character, for Songs of the Earth is an inextricable part of a trilogy, a story that’s just starting. A story that would be easier and much more engaging to read if the moralizing hid itself below the surface