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Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper

Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper
Book Name: Songs of the Earth
Author: Elspeth Cooper
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: February 28, 2012

It’s been reviewed here before, has been a book club read, but Songs of the Earth is a book I have to shout about. Here’s why.

Years ago, I gave up reading fantasy novels. I grew tired of what felt like the same story repeated over and over, the young boy who turns out to have magical powers/be the son of a god/save the world. A writer called Joe Abercrombie (you may have heard of him) got me back into the genre with his First Law Trilogy, and I haven’t looked back.

Until now. Songs of the Earth is a book I once would have hastily put back on the shelves, one I wouldn’t normally have touched with a barge pole. Why? Let me tell you. Our hero is the young man, Gair. He can hear music – music that has power – and for knowing such magic, he is about to be burned at the stake. Can Gair escape, find the Guardians of the Veil, and master his dangerous abilities?

I’m sure you can guess the answer, and also surmise that there’ll be a bit of world-saving thrown in. This is not a book a jaded cynic like me would enjoy; it’s not a startling concept as regards the story, and books like this are ten a penny, right?

Wrong. Songs of the Earth is a book that could have so easily sunk into tired and clichéd fantasy, but instead it raises its head above the crowd and announces the arrival of Elspeth Cooper with a bang. Yes, the story is relatively simple – Gair meets a mentor, is trained, falls foul of a villain, rises to victory – one that’s been seen many times in books and films, but the writing turns it into so much more. The characters, far from being embellished tropes, are people we genuinely care about, emotions tugged by the love and pain they share through the course of the novel.

It’s taken me longer than I would have liked to read Songs of the Earth, I only had the opportunity to read it in short sessions – up to the last hundred pages which I read in one sitting on a stormy evening. It’s a fitting climax to everything that goes before it, and even reduced this would-be tough-guy to tears. Recounting the events a couple of days later, still brought a lump to my throat.

All this is praise indeed, more so from myself, which is why it’s taken so long for me to sit down and write this review. You see, this is a book I shouldn’t like, the type of story I didn’t want to read again, and yet I have found it totally endearing. So much so, that I’m wondering what I’ve missed out on over all these years. I’ve read the likes of Sanderson and Rothfuss and – perhaps controversially – thought that these are good, but not great, novels. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand their popularity; entertaining, certainly, but they’ve lacked a certain spark for me.

Songs of the Earth has that spark, despite any initial misgivings I may have had about the plot. Not only are the characters fascinating, but the world Elspeth Cooper has created is wholly alive. Where many authors would allow the story to be bogged down in lessons of geography and history, she doesn’t; characters are described as having traits and typical looks of where they originate, but the reader is left to imagine that land. There are no maps to refer to, allowing the world to form in the reader’s mind. In this, Elspeth Cooper reminds me of David Gemmel – no wonder she was nominated for an award.

The pace of the novel is quick, but not too fast. Weeks can pass between chapters and, while other authors may have bogged a reader down in detail, in Songs of the Earth it means that any ‘boring bits’ are eliminated; this gives the book a very ‘filmic’ quality, where we are told only what we need to know. Even when the characters are at their most relaxed, there’s a palpable threat of menace lurking in the background, getting ever closer.

Throughout the book, the quality of writing shines through. Metaphors abound, but they are always apt, never jarring or wedged in. One scene, where a character is ‘rivened’ is so well described that it is jaw-droppingly brutal. There are one or two lines that made me wince – ‘the silky folds of her sex,’ anyone? – and I kind of lost the sense that Gair was scarred (a point that is made many times in the early stages of the novel), but that could be due to the length of time it’s taken me to read the book. There’s a death that occurs off-page – almost a brief aside following the build up of that particular character – which could have been made more of, but I can see that in doing so, it might have lessened the impact of another.

What more can I say? This book has shattered all my misconceptions about ‘chosen saviour’ stories being dull and predictable. It’s a stunning opening to a new series, from a writer who already possesses a unique and talented voice. Not entirely perfect, but it’s a fast-paced book that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, and is all the more refreshing for it.



  1. Avatar Jape says:

    I’m not big into fantasy, but I have read some that I really like. Your review here has talked me into trying this series. Thanks for the honest words.

  2. Nice review. You mirror my fantasy experience except it was GRRM that got me back in.

    I too am now ready to consider more traditional forms again but done with real quality & freshness to the writing. SotE is on my list.

  3. Avatar Shack says:

    I love this book. Everyone should read it.

  4. Avatar Danny says:

    I saw this book in the store after hearing about it in the FF podcasts and wasn’t sure if it was something I would want to read. If you are likening it to Gemmell, though, (my favorite author), I will definitely have to give it a try. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

  5. Avatar Codey says:

    I really tried to loose myself in this book. First book in my 30+ year reading career that i couldn’t finish. And i am a fan of the genre. Great prose by the author but the editing…. The story jumped too much, from playing chess in one paragraph to being locked outside in the rain in the next. I’m outside now i’m on a balcony, how did i get here? Who knows! I felt characters changed from distrust to amorous in two sentences with no explanation. The protagonist is set up with a school nemesis we see once then just disappears for most of the rest of the story. I found myself being pulled from the beautiful story telling constantly by having to try and figure out who was who and how those characters have gotten from place to place with no explanation. I too like a fast paced book but i would like at least “the following day” or “upon waking the next day” instead of discovering that people who are two days away from arriving have arrived in the next paragraph with no acknowledgement of the intervening time. The constant replacement of character names with their race names was also confusing when none of the races have been established or explained as being a race. It has all the elements of a great story, i just felt the editing left me constantly thinking “wait what just happened?” From other reviews i am very much in the minority and am happy that the author has found a large market and strong fan base.

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