I like to vary my reading diet a little, and having come across the charming Ms Cooper on Twitter and discovered her to be a fellow aficionado of the blade, I couldn’t resist her debut fantasy novel, Songs of the Earth, published earlier this year by Gollancz.
Gair has been raised by the Church to be a knight of the Goddess, but when he is discovered to be hiding magical powers, he is sentenced to death as a witch. Fortunately for Gair he has an unknown benefactor amongst the religious leaders; instead of being executed he is branded on the hand and banished, though not without one of the more fanatical churchmen setting a witchfinder on his trail…
Songs of the Earth is very traditional high fantasy, a tale of a young man who is taken under the wing of a kindly (if sometimes overly secretive) old wizard, comes into his magical powers, and helps to save his new wizarding community from an attack by a psychopathic former pupil of his master. So far, so Harry Potter meets Star Wars. What lifts this novel above such simplistic comparisons are the vivid descriptions of the natural world: this is a writer whose love of the wild places of Britain shines through in many a scene (Cooper lives in Northumberland). The clean and cosy island community of gaeden (wizards) reminded me a great deal of Earthsea, and also of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, and I think fans of those books will find a lot to enjoy.
For me, though, it was a little too black-and-white. The protagonist, Gair, is a naive 21-year-old who comes across more like a teenager than a grown man (understandable, perhaps, given his literally cloistered upbringing), and of course he just happens to be great with a sword as well as the most powerful magical talent his tutors have seen in many years. His nemeses, meanwhile, are blacker than black: an irredeemably twisted mage whose motivation seems to be to destroy the world just because he can, and an equally twisted cleric with a taste for torturing young men. Some of the scenes with the latter show that Cooper can write dark and cynical when she wants to, and I for one would have liked to see more of this side of her work.
As a debut novel, Songs of the Earth shows an impressive talent for writing description and action somewhat hampered by a predictable story, and I hope that having tested her fledgling wings, Cooper will gain the confidence to tackle something more demanding in subsequent books.