Imagine there is a song that embodies the power of the world. Imagine that to sing that song is to touch the power of creation and change the nature of things around you – to heal the broken, to prevent harm to others, to affect the actions of others and sense when people are near. Imagine that you alone can hear the song, and your voice alone can sing it.
This is the life of the orphan Birdie, the main character of Orphan’s Song by Gillian Bronte Adams, first book in the Songkeeper Chronicles. Birdie has lived her twelve years with the mystery of the song that only she can hear, the ward of a less-than-kind innkeeper. Her only friend is an itinerant peddler, who holds his own secrets, who becomes her protector when soldiers of the evil ruler, the Takhran, come seeking Birdie.
If this sounds like your classic coming of age fantasy story aimed at adolescents, I can’t argue with you. The recipe is adapted a little, but it’s still the same cake we’ve eaten before. There’s a gryphon (or is it a hippogryph?), a magic sword, a streetwise urchin, and a stirring rebellion; in short, many of the classic elements of a good ol’ fantasy adventure story.
There’s a reason these elements appear again and again. They call to something deep inside of us, the desire to be more than we are, to seek greater things, and to rise to the challenges laid before us, even when we are afraid. Any writer who tries to write a good fantasy story without using the classic fantasy tropes will quickly find out that they are classic for a reason. Rather than fight against it, Adams does a fine job of blending them with her own unique flavors.
The idea of the song calls to mind C.S. Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew and the scene when Aslan sings Narnia into existence, but Adams’ spin on that concept is fresh and pleasant. It makes me think of the question Del Tackett asks in The Truth Project, “And why is there music?” When we are asked to believe that the universe and this world and life itself is all just the product of random chemical interactions, the incredible existence of musical structure and harmony hints powerfully to a Creator. The song Birdie hears seems to be a connection to the deity of her world as well.
Lest I offer any spoilers, I’ll say that the character of Amos McElhenny, the peddler, seems at first a little too stereotypical, with his colloquial expletives and caricatured dialect. But as his story develops and his background is revealed, he gains compelling depth that makes me want to know more. It’s a refreshing approach to the grizzled mentor companion.
Ky Huntyr, the streetwise urchin, made me think of Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, albeit a less emotionally intense version. He contrasts well with Birdie, adding yet again a depth that makes Adams’ story unique.
I found myself very much enjoying Orphan’s Song. It is not without its flaws; Adams is young, and this shows in the bane of all inexperienced authors – the temptation to tell rather than show. It’s probably due to how intently I focus on correcting that in my own writing that I noticed it as often as I did in Orphan’s Song; another reader might think nothing of it. But even if that sort of thing gets you as well, I don’t think it is enough to make you put this one down. There is a beautiful story unraveling here, and it is worth reading.
So, congratulations Gillian on your debut. I look forward to reading the rest when you finish. Don’t take your time, okay?