Tuesday 24 April 2012

Unfinished Book Review: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

(With a short essay on Character Driven Fantasy)

Pros: good writing, some great action scenes, realistic world-building, some interesting plot developments (with the Hidden Kingdom and the priests)

Cons: religion is too close to Catholicism (bumped me out of the story), becomes character driven, Gair is too perfect/able

Gair, who has spent the last 10 years of his life training to be a holy knight, is found practicing magic and accused of witchcraft.  The sentence of execution is mitigated and he's let go.  One of his accusers sends a witchfinder and knights to kill him.  A mysterious old man, Alderan, helps him and offers to train him in the use of magic.

I've mentioned on my blog before that I'm not a fan of character driven books.  There are two reasons for that.  The first is that I like accomplishment (in my own life and the lives of those in books).  I like to see advancement of some sort.  I like the feeling that the characters are working towards a final confrontation/revelation/whatever.  I suppose that's one reason I like quest stories so much.  Instant plot arc.

Character driven stories don't always have a plot arc (I say always because some do, if only visible from the ending looking back - like Piers Anthony's A Spell for Chameleon).  As such, I generally find myself in the middle of the book wondering why all of this is happening.  Sure the character is doing stuff, but to what purpose?

That brings me to point two: the character MUST be interesting.  And frankly, there are few characters that are so interesting I'll follow their meanderings in order to find out where they're going with their lives.  If I want to witness people doing random things for random reasons, I'll pay more attention to real life.  I go to books for a story, and I really like to see where the story goes.  A story told just to let a character do stuff... makes me wonder why I care.  How do their actions affect the world?  Do they affect the world at all?

I'm also a reader who tends to prefer side plot elements to the central character in character driven books (Robin Hobbs' Farseer trilogy ticked me off because we followed the assassin rather than getting to see how the war ended).

So, back to The Songs of the Earth.  It begins promisingly with a trial and Gair having to escape the diocese before sundown.  My only complaint about this section of the book was that the Edoran religion was a little too similar to Catholicism.  This is the prayer that starts the book:

"Hail, Mother, full of grace, light and life of all the world.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall find strength in you.  Blessed are the lost, for they shall find salvation in you.  Amen."

Now, I'm not Catholic, but that sounds pretty similar to the rosary to me, subbing out "Mary" for "Mother".  That made me question the setting.  I was pretty sure this wasn't meant to be earth, but I could be wrong.  And it took several chapters to verify that this was, in fact, not earth. 

Gair is an interesting character, but he becomes too much of a Mary Sue (is there a name for a male Mary Sue?).  When he reaches the school Alderan takes him to he's tested in magic.  Up until recently in the book he's been afraid of using magic for fear that it will break loose and cause destruction.  Suddenly he can work all forms of magic (including the apparently very rare shape shifting magic) without much trouble, if with a fair amount of effort.  He's also very good at sword fighting (which one would expect of a man who's trained for 10 years to be a knight) and yet, not quite as good as I'd expected, given all his training vs that of the people at the school (who would have been studying a lot of other things as well).  He's also an all-round nice guy.  He has faults, but they're easily forgiven and mostly ignored.

Still, as interesting as he is as a character (and he is interesting, despite his virtual perfection), 100 pages of travelling and several chapters of him at school, falling in love (with a woman who's only interested in him due to his shape shifting ability) wasn't endearing him to me.  He simply isn't interesting enough to me to carry a novel without a plot.  I stopped reading on page 236 when I asked myself why I cared about him and his studies.  Why I cared to learn what he was doing from day to day.  The answer was that I didn't.

And it's a shame, because the world was interesting and it's clear there are plot elements to be uncovered (with the wall between their world and the Hidden World that's currently failing, and the reason why the priest, Goran, wants Gair dead so badly he's sent a witchfinder after him).

If you like character driven fantasy, then pick this up, because it does have a number of things going for it.  If you don't like character driven fantasy, then there are a lot of other books out there you'll prefer to this one.  


Paul Weimer said...

I'm sorry, Jessica. "DNF" is about the worst thing a reviewer can say in a review.

Jessica Strider said...

I disagree. The worst thing a review can say is that a book is drivel with no redeeming features.

Not being able to finish a book simply means it was the wrong book for that reader. I've put down several books that had redeeming qualities (like this one) that just weren't for me at the time of reading.

Mood, last book read, stress level, etc. all play a part in reading. I've prepped a post for tomorrow explaining how I've developed fantasy fatigue and am just not enjoying fantasy the way I used to - even fantasy by authors whose work I've read before and loved.

And a lot of people like character driven fiction, which I'm not as keen on. Just as I like quest fantasy novels which other people aren't keen on. There's so much subjectivity in books and reviewing. That's one reason I don't like starred ratings and prefer the pro/con mode of telling readers what's in a book (because it allows others to say - "Jessica put graphic violence in the con category, I like graphic violence so maybe I'll like this book").

Paul Weimer said...

A fair rebuttal with good points.

Jessica Strider said...

I don't post unfinished book reviews very often, and I debated not posting this one. In the end, I thought the book had enough going for it that I decided to post this in the hope that the book will attract readers who like character driven fantasy.

Paul Weimer said...

I did write a somewhat critical review of SOTE for the Functional Nerds. Did you see it?

Jessica Strider said...

I hadn't read your review (I avoid reading reviews of books I'm reviewing for fear that the other person's comments will affect my own reading of the book). I think it's a fair review, based on my own impressions of the book. I really liked your synopsis (mine has a lot less mystery and enticement).

For anyone who's interested, Paul's review can be found here: