Review - Song of the Beast

by Wardog

Wardog joyfully embraces standalone fantasy.
I'm mad for standalone fantasy - it has all the things I do actually enjoy about the fantasy genre (like dragons!) with some other things that are generally accounted pleasant and even necessary things in fiction, like a plot arc and pacing and an ending that isn't an irritating cliff-hanger or pointless setup for another book. Therefore I was predisposed towards liking Song of the Beast before I even began and, thankfully, it didn't horribly disappoint me.

Aidan McAllister (quite why he's called McAllister I never did work out), cousin to the king of Elyria, is a world-renowned musician, fascinated by the bloodstone enslaved dragons the kingdom uses to maintain its military strength. The book opens with Aidan being released from the prison in which he has spent the last seventeen years being horribly tortured for a crime of which is ignorant. For the first ten years, he remained defiant, comforted by the voice of the God of music in his mind, but finally, when the voice fell silent, he capitulated, exchanging his freedom for seven years of silence. Completely broken by his ordeal, his hands ruined and his back a mass of scar tissue, Aidan discovers the truth of his imprisonment with the help of the Elhim (a mysterious, downtrodden gender neutral race): he is supposedly the only man who can free the dragons from thrall.

When thus summarised, it doesn't sound particularly inspiring and encourages comparisons to Ann McCaffrey (shudder) but it's actually much better than the above paragraph conveys. I've deliberately left the summary vague because, although the main plot begins and ends exactly where you would expect, the journey is surprisingly eventful and offers some unexpected twists and turns. The book is nicely devoid of anybody on whom you might uncontroversially bestow the title 'villain' - there are plenty of antagonists but most of these (bar some of the more minor ones who are basically just plain bad) are fully realised characters with complex and understandable motivations.

I also really liked Aidan. He's scarred both inside and out from his imprisonment but he's never irritatingly broken (*cough* Felix Harrowgate *cough*). In the early parts of the book especially, he's often bitter and despairing and filled with self-loathing but he never whinges about it which makes him - even in his bleakest moments - easy to like. His courage is of a quiet, persistent sort and his strengths are limited by the life he has lived and his long years of imprisonment. He's not a kick-ass hero: he's a gentle soul and a musician and, for most of the book, he can't even do that. But there is something genuinely attractive and refreshing about him. Perhaps it's just because, as we have all argued about previously and at length, the fantasy genre tends to take "victimised woman" as one of its stock character types and, therefore, I really appreciated the subtle depiction of a vulnerable man.

The book is narrated in the first person, initially by Aidan himself and then by Lara, an equally scarred and broken dragon rider who is coerced into aiding him by the Elhim. There are also a few scattered chapters from the perspective of other characters but the shifting point of view is actually the weakest aspect of the book. Aidan's sections are the most effective and, although I had warmed up to Lara (who's quite a difficult character) by the end, I still rather resented the change of narrator. I suspect that perhaps the author didn't trust her own character - needless to say, Aidan's self-esteem is not exactly soaring and this very much colours the way he presents himself, but it doesn't necessarily follow that the reader will accept his estimation of himself. Lara's perspective on Aidan is harsh and condemning to begin with but as their relationships grows and deeps it changes and it feels rather like Berg is saying "look, look, he's attractive really, see how charming he can be, Lara thinks so!" when it's perfectly possible to reach those conclusions without needing Lara's eyes to show them to you. Equally the chapters from the perspective of other secondary chapters are either jarring or feel like they're deliberately set up to deceive the reader. For example, early on there's a chapter from Narim, one of the Elhim. As the book unfolds it turns out that Narim knows far more about the situation than he initially reveals but nevertheless his chapter reads as if he doesn't.

I was surprised to learn that Song of the Beast is generally billed as romantic fantasy. There are romantic elements but, although Lara and Aidan's burgeoning love offers them a degree of personal redemption, their romance in no way drives the book. Despite my irritations with the shifting viewpoint, I was generally very impressed by Song of the Beast. It balances both plot and character arcs very well, offers a well-realised world in well under the traditional eight hundred pages and the pleasure of reading a self-contained volume cannot be over-stated.

Fantasy Rape Watch

Nothing of note.
Congratulations to Ms Berg.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 15:43 on 2008-05-15
I was surprised to learn that Song of the Beast is generally billed as romantic fantasy. There are romantic elements but, although Lara and Aidan's burgeoning love offers them a degree of personal redemption, their romance in no way drives the book.

Well, there's the thing:

- There is no market for short, snappy, standalone fantasy novels - or at least, so the publishers think.
- There is a market for short, snappy, standalone romance novels in various subgenres (including Texas vampire romance novels).
- Therefore, if you put in a romance subplot you can call your book romantic fantasy, and they'll let you keep it short and standalone rather than making you spin it out into a series.

That's my guess, anyway.
Wardog at 09:21 on 2008-05-16
Mmmm, it's a shame there isn't a "girly fantasy" category because it's definintely that - not that there's anything wrong with being girly fantasy.
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