Review: Songkeeper is both Brutal and Brilliant


When I reviewed part one of Gillian Bronte Adams’s Songkeeper Chronicles, Orphan’s Song, I reflected on her subversion of traditional YA fantasy tropes, slyly leading the audience into traps of surprising emotional depth.  If I approached book two, the eponymous Songkeeper, with this knowledge of her technique, it did me no good.  I was trapped anew, only deeper this time.

If you haven’t had read Orphan’s Song, I’d suggest you buy a copy before carrying on.  I offer no shield against spoilers for book one, though I’ll do my best to preserve Songkeeper’s secrets.  When we last left our heroes, they had been taken captive aboard a Langorian pirate ship, and if you think Birdie and Ky are going to talk themselves into command in a Barrie-esque romp, you will be quickly disillusioned.  

In fact, we learn quickly that Carhartan’s attempted strangling at the end of book one has left young Birdie without access to the Song, the mysterious power only she can source.  Just as Birdie has begun to grow reliant on the force, she is cut off from it.  Meanwhile, Ky, the heroic thief, quickly finds himself a kingdom away from his chief purpose, the protection of his family of orphans, the Underground.  

At the end of Orphan’s Song, our protagonists were already shorn of their comfort and protection.  By immediately stripping them further of their deeper securities, Adams sidesteps the common book two error of letting up, of giving our heroes a break, a stronger footing before plunging them into a an even more perilous trial.

There is no space for this.  This isn’t The Wheel of Time.  Adams has planned this series as a trilogy, and these aren’t thousand page epics.  The fastest way to grow a character in 352 pages is to put him or her to the anvil, and Songkeeper is definitely an anvil.

More than a decade ago, J.K. Rowling showed us how to mature a set of characters with their audience, and it’s been an essential art ever since.  As Birdie grows up, so does her audience, and, as we often find in our own adolescence, so do her horrors.

In the introductory chapters, Birdie finds herself saddled with a new mission, one beyond mere survival, beyond helping those in her immediate sphere.  But with the Song still inaccessible, she feels ill-equipped to take it on.  As we all feel when setting out on missions, especially in our youth.  Ky, too, is thrust into greater responsibility.  His tasks are no longer so simple, his problems no longer have such straightforward solutions.

Nor are Birdie and Ky just mirrors of each other.  Their paths diverge only a few chapters in, after what I’ll put mildly as some confusing complications to their only fledgling friendship, and they encounter very different challenges.  Birdie faces constant flight and danger, and Ky finds himself in more of a tense, drudging monotony.  Birdie must learn to be more bold, and Ky must see his boldness blunted.

I’ve found often in my own writing that I err toward making my characters too similar to each other, not only in personality, but in flaws to overcome.  It’s an easy mistake.  Insert blank character template, subject to trial 2.64, bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes.  Use cookie cutters, and get identical cookies.  Adams deftly avoids this.  Birdie and Ky grow separately, facing unique challenges and gaining unique characteristics.  

This may all sound a bit vague, but remember that I’m trying to strain even the faintest of spoilers out of my review.  Not really because spoilers irritate me when I read them, but because I want you to remain blissfully unprepared for just how brutal a crucible Songkeeper will be for our protagonists.  You think you know, after Orphan’s Song, and after having read some YA fiction in your day, but you don’t.  Once again, Adams takes the beautiful, whimsical world of Liera, and the simple, storybook goodness of our heroes and turns them on their heads, just as she did with book one.  She baits us, and though I warn you now, still she will pull out the stick and find you under the box.  

Now, perk up, because it’s not all blood and ashes.  Scroll up a moment and look at that cover again.  They’re riding lions, people.  Do you know how long I’ve wanted to ride a lion?  Further back than I can remember.  And there’s a bearded ginger, raging with an awesome sword, riding a blooming lion.  I am 12 again.  It’s one more picture of the joy and magic of Leira, and despite the sometimes dour circumstances, it’s more than enough to enrapture any fantasy fan.

Songkeeper is laced with action.  Flight and swordplay, storms and sieges, it never slackens its pace more than a moment, a moment enough to coax you into the belief that you’ll be able to put it down.  Then everything explodes and you’re staying up another hour at least. 

We also meet a whole new cast of characters, each as interesting and complex as the last.  Brave and stark Sym, quiet and passionate Inali, and my personal favorite, Migden, the quick-witted, persuasive dwarf.  His verbal fencing matches with the irritated Ky are some of my favorite scenes in the book.  It’s easy for your travelling companions to always agree with each other.  But arguments bring out the color.  Adams paints liberally with this brush to great effect.  Amos and Gundhrold, Sym and Inali, the arguments prove their depth.  

Once again, my criticisms are few.  Adams has matured in her description, relying on a healthier seasoning of adjectives, though I did sometimes find myself spatially confused in new settings.  I’m also not a huge fan of Adams’s addiction to “emphasis by formatting,” or separating a sentence from its paragraph to give it weight.  It works in moderation, but on every page it loses its power.

My only other gripe was the lack of ceremony with which we met the Takhran.  After the terrifying half-introduction we received in Orphan’s Song, I expected the full introduction to be a bit more…ceremonial, I suppose.  But that’s it.  Try as I might, I can’t come up with anything else to whine about.  

And nor will you.  Songkeeper releases this Friday, April 15th, and if you’ve read Orphan’s Song, you can’t skip it.  If you haven’t read book one, well, you have some work to do.  Get cracking.

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