Debut fantasy is less than the sum of its parts
As is often the case with first novels, Songs Of The Earth has a strong feel of “everything but the kitchen sink” to it. As if unable to bear leaving out any of her ideas, now that she has the opportunity to share them, Newcastle-born Cooper tries to use the same set of characters to tell no fewer than three different tales at once: a melodrama about magic-users persecuted by an intolerant, militaristic church, a magical boarding school romp, and the start of an epic war story in which hideous creatures launch an invasion from another plane.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, these elements never gel; indeed, at times they actually interfere with each other. Protagonist Gair, a disgraced Church Knight raised to believe that using magic imperils his soul, overcomes years of religious training in a couple of chapters so that he can join the Chapterhouse magic school, and take part in the hijinks of story number two. The novel opens with a broken Gair on trial for his life, having been imprisoned by his brother knights for furtive experiments with his inborn powers. Cooper lets the tension dissipate almost immediately, however, by repeatedly cutting away from the claustrophobic fear and spiritual pain of Gair, to the point of view of an onlooker named Alderan. Frustratingly, rather than allowing the reader to squirm for a while with Gair, and share the young man’s agony at the way his world has been torn apart in order to better understand him, Cooper instead has Alderan – who is all calmness as he contemplates his rescue plan – explain to us more than is strictly necessary about the situation.
Soon, Gair is on the road with his twinkly Gandalf figure, and after a few token debates about whether he can abandon his entire belief system and way of understanding the world, he is flinging his powers about with barely a whiff of concern and embracing life among his fellow heretics at the Chapterhouse, where Alderan is a prominent teacher. From time to time, we leave Gair’s perspective and visit other parts of the world to receive Ominous Hints about the third storyline. While the sense of a world out of balance is well conveyed – in particular, a visit to a ruined trading entrepot, flooded as a result of unnatural storms, is a marvellous piece of sustained description and mood-setting – these scenes feel tonally out of place alongside the other two stories, and we are given little reason to invest in them besides the tenuous meta reassurance that, since they are in the book, they must be of significance.
After a promisingly dark start, Gair resolves into your standard young male fantasy trilogy lead: destined to be the most powerful mage ever and occasionally called upon to prove himself by brawling with other young male characters. Much more compelling is his teacher Aysha, a smart, blunt, earthy woman who derives a fierce joy from shapeshifting, which offers a freedom of movement that her disabled human form does not. She is a wonderfully complex character who punctures the earnest mood every time she appears – it’s a shame to see her lost in such a haphazardly structured book.
There is promise, but as yet the discipline needed for really focused storytelling seems to be lacking. Fantasy has always been a plot-driven genre, but the best fantasy offers tales that fit more organically within its invented worlds and with its characters than is the case here, sadly.