Wild Hunt Book 1
467 pages, Gollancz
Review by S.F. Winser
Elspeth Cooper has a way with scene setting. Epic fantasy, in many ways, is only as good as its world building. This is often achieved with high detail and overtly rococo styling. 'Songs of the Earth' is a fantasy where the scene is set, a room decorated or a character drawn with a few simple but well-chosen images, or smells, or sounds. It's extremely effective. It also means that the book moves with a fair pace without getting caught up in its own faux medieval-ness as is the downfall of many fantasy novels.
The idea is that there is a boy – Gair. Gair is a witch in a highly religious society and the book opens with him in a cell, after months of beatings and torture, about to be sentenced to the inevitable burning at the stake that is the fate of all witches...
...except that the church hides secrets. And Gair escapes this doom, though through no doing of his own.
Gair spends this first novel coming to terms with his state as a condemned sinner and as someone who can hear 'The Song of the Earth'. (The basis of an interesting magic system Cooper has created. It's sort of a pantheist power, coming from the world and strengthened by the natural order of things, but manifesting in a song only heard by the magically powerful.)
However Gair isn't just a witch. He's also a knight in training, raised in a religious cloister with secrets in his past that are so secret, he doesn't even know they exist.
What's great about Gair is the way Cooper has taken this boy, trained for years in a chapterhouse of a religious templar-like society and forced him into a situation he sees as inherently sinful. Gair questions his religion and his upbringing as it conflicts with the beauty of the magic he can't help but embrace... but he also can't quite shake his previous life. In many ways, he is still a warrior-monk in training. He doesn't wallow in self pity to the point of losing the reader's sympathy, but neither does he do a belief-straining character reversal. He may question his beliefs and leave much of his religion behind, however he keeps his sword, his religious manners and often still prays to his old Goddess. It makes Gair truly intriguing and sets him apart from the other characters carved from the orphan-with-magic trope.
I hate to review a new series only one book in, but Cooper is a promising new writer with a deep new world and a great main character. There's no way in hell I'm not gonna buy book two.