Song Quest by Katherine Roberts (1999): book review

A beautiful and imaginative fantasy for older children/teenagers. The blue-haired Singers have special powers for negotiating. Young Rialle needs all her powers to deal with the magical creatures and evil people she meets. Who can she trust?

By no means a perfect fantasy, but worth reading if you don’t expect it to be Lord of the Rings or The Earthsea Trilogy, or even Harry Potter. First in the Echorium Sequence, but the ending is satisfying, leaving you wanting more tales from this universe.

On a remote island, a mysterious order of Singers is trained to become negotiators and peacemakers. They are uniquely suited to this role due to the skills they have honed as Singers, whose five magical Songs can control emotions, punish wrongdoers and even have the seldom-used power of ‘death’. This is a world of Half Creatures, part human, part animal, like the beautiful merlees with their silver hair and the quetzals, birds with flat faces, beaks and beautiful and possibly magical feathers. The names are initially confusing, but there are not too many, so you soon start remembering them.

Inviting comparison with Harry Potter

To start with, I was afraid this was going to be just one more thinly disguised Harry Potter copycat, set as it is in a magical school, though the magic is not in spells and potions. I was worried it was going to degenerate into a school romance with its irritating description of Frenn’s lopsided grin and his possible rival for Rialle’s affections, the hostile and rebellious Kherron.

I needn’t have worried. Soon our heroine Rialle has other things on her mind as she is taken to the mainland as part of a delegation to reprimand the Karchlord whose men have been illegally capturing merlees, breaking a treaty by which they had agreed never to kill Half Creatures. Again, echoes of Harry Potter with the Mud-bloods, but these not part of the human kingdom of wizards. In fact, they are more like the magical creatures that work together on the side of good such as the unicorns and centaurs in the HP Forbidden Forest or even the basilisk. There is a sense that they can communicate with certain exceptional Singers. Of course, Rialle is one of these people. Even though she is still a novice nearing the end of her training, like Harry Potter, she has an innate skill that she needs to learn to tame.

The comparisons with Harry Potter are soon forgotten, however. Katherine Roberts has imagined an unusual superpower for her elite Singers. Who is the Karchlord and why is he so cruel? There are surprises in store! All is not what it seems. What makes it more intriguing is that the trainee Singers are not yet aware of all their powers and the rebel Kherron is separated from Rialle, Frenn and the delegation. This adds an extra tension as we do not know what to expect from him, especially as there is no time to get to know him at the start of the story, except to set him up as a bully and hothead. Likewise, as the story progresses, the two parties find out different information about society in the Karch (the mainland). This means they are not able to trust each other. Are they allies or enemies? Of course, the reader has an overview of everything, but that still leaves room for surprises.

This isn’t a hardcore fantasy novel, so don’t expect Lord of the Rings. However, even though it the book is suitable for older children/teenagers, it does have enough unpleasantness in it to make it unsuitable for sensitive souls, including some rather terrible cruelty to Half Creatures. I would have liked to know more about the merlees and quetzals. They are well described but they can’t communicate clearly, so we don’t really find out what they’re thinking, though they obviously have deep feelings and loyalties. There are also too many places where one of the main characters is drugged or otherwise unable to report on what is happening, keeping them and us in the dark; very convenient! And there were one or two times where Rialle could have saved herself by using her powers and didn’t, hence getting herself into more difficulties.

A beautiful book

The cover of this book is really beautifully illustrated. The Singers dye their hair blue, so the cover shows our heroine’s face with her blue hair curling like a wave with a ship tossed by a giant wave. What at first appears to be a blue tear is a stone held by a half woman half fish merlee (though she should have silver hair, not blue). The black and white illustrations throughout the book are also beautiful, with a different sketch at the start of each chapter, each with a chapter-related medallion in a Celtic knot-style frame. As a bonus there is a map at the front, a medallion naming the five Song types and another page introducing the names and concepts. What I didn’t realise until I’d nearly finished, is that there is also a glossary at the end, but it wasn’t really necessary. Also unnecessary: the sample pages of the following book in the Echorium Sequence.

The Echorium Sequence

There are two more books in this series:

  • The Crystal Mask (2001)
  • Dark Quetzal (2003)