Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Three-For-One Review: The "Symphony of Ages" Trilogy by Elizabeth Haydon

Rhapsody, a gifted singer and Namer, is on the run from the demons of her past. A far more literal demon pursues the two half-monster warriors Grunthor and Achmed. When Rhapsody’s power of Naming Naming frees Achmed from his curse, the monstrous pair drag the singer along on a desperate race to outrun the coming apocalypse.

The escape leads the three on a surreal journey through the fires at the center of the earth. They emerge into a transformed world, separated from the one they knew by hundreds of years. But not all has been destroyed. Amid the wonders and mysteries of their new world, familiar nightmares survive to haunt and to hunt them--as well as sweeter dreams long since given up for lost.

Fantasy Adventure: 4 out of 5 stars
Romance: 1 out of 5 stars

(grump below the cut)
Dear reader, let us go back a decade or so to a time when I picked up books simply because they had great illustrations on the cover. I read the Symphony of Ages trilogy (separately titled Rhapsody, Prophecy, and Destiny) purely because the three main characters looked interesting—tiny wee elfin warrior woman, giant hulking orc thing, and what is Achmed even doing there in the back? Also, the second book cover had a dragon.

I have spent the years since that time trying to decide whether these books were any good.

My roommate reminded me of their existence a few months ago. Our initial mockery over its saccharine love story and ludicrously attractive heroine soon gave way to enthusing about how good the worldbuilding is, how deftly the plot comes together, how well-written and complex all the characters but Ashe are. I have since reread them, and here’s my verdict:

This trilogy is not a good or original or terribly interesting romance, and if the reader focuses on that, well, there are far better books to read.


Setting the romantic plot aside, it is also a well-crafted and riveting epic fantasy, with the best handling of multiple-interpretation prophecy I have read.

Rhapsody, the first book in the trilogy, suffers from a lack of a defined structure. It’s a road trip story, in essence. Elizabeth Haydon uses it to develop the world, introduce the major players, and to set up all the dominoes for the second two books to knock down in glorious style.

Despite its weakness in the arena of plot, Rhapsody is a fun read. The three main characters--Achmed, Grunthor, and Rhapsody (we don’t talk about Ashe)--have a magnificent rapport, whether comedic or emotive. The entire second half of the book consists of Achmed and Rhapsody slinging zingers at each other.
Rhapsody soaked a clean linen handkerchief with the tonic and applied it directly to the wound. Achmed twisted away. “Hold still; I’ve never done this before,” she chided.

"Well, that’s reassuring." He winced as a dismal burning sensation began under the skin. "I hope you realize I don’t need both hands to kill you, if it was your intent to deprive me of one."

Rhapsody looked up at him and smiled. She was beginning to take to his sense of humor. Grunthor was right; she had a powerful smile. He made note of it for future reference.

She returned to her work, humming a tune that made his ears buzz.

"Stop that noise," he instructed harshly.

She laughed. "It won’t work if I stop the noise; that’s the most important part. It’s a song of healing."

"Oh, ‘ow pretty," said Grunthor. "Well, sir, if we can’t find work when we get out o’ this stinkin’ ‘hole, maybe ‘Er Ladyship ‘ere will teach us some tunes and we can go on the road as a team of wanderin’ troubadours. Oi can see it now: Doctor Achmed’s Travelin’ Snake Show."

"Great idea," Rhapsody said. "Let me guess: you sing tenor, Achmed." She received a surly look in response. "You know, you both really ought to have more respect for music. It can be a really powerful weapon, as well as whatever else you need it to be."

"That’s true; me singin’ voice can be quite good for inflictin’ pain. At least that’s what the troops used ta tell me."

Rhapsody’s smile grew a little brighter. “Go ahead, laugh if you want to. But music of one form or another will probably be what gets us out of this place.”

"Only if you annoy me so much with your singing that I use your body as an auger and drill us out of here."
With the table set for high fantasy, the second and third books serve up the adventure. Haydon juggles political schemes with monsters and demonology, but gives convincing reasons to set her three heroes in the thick of it all. As a reader, I was tickled to guess certain secrets and prophetic outcomes before the characters did. At other times, I was on the edge of my seat, unable to think of a way that Haydon could save them from ruin.

It is tough to write a book where much of the plot hinges on a character’s astonishing and irresistible beauty. (In my experience, the only other that does it well is Fire by Kristin Cashore.) Many readers would find it difficult to maintain a suspension of disbelief, or fail to identify with the character. What made me reread these books was the moment my roommate pointed out how much she liked Rhapsody, despite some unfortunate narrative choices. In the end, Rhapsody is a character I admire, for whom I'm willing to endure a little cheese.

We don't talk about Ashe.
In addition, I better understand some of the things that Teenaged Me took for inconsistent characterization—namely, how Rhapsody can make flirtatious or dirty jokes, but then get upset when other characters make sexual remarks about her. I can see the difference now between Rhapsody's freedom to joke around in a safe setting versus Rhapsody being unwillingly objectified or insulted. This is especially important for a character explicitly stated to be a survivor of abuse. In retrospect, Haydon did a good job writing Rhapsody as a multifaceted character: not just a victim, not just a whore, not just a kindly mother figure, not just a lost child, not just a warrior, not just a healer, but all of these things in turn.

Moreover, Rhapsody doesn’t stand alone. She is surrounded by other great characters who keep me turning pages past Ashe’s chapters long into the night. Obviously we love Grunthor, who loves her and protects her and might still eat her someday, and Achmed, the sour, scarred king of cannibal giants with the terrible sly sense of humor. But let's not leave out the rest of the cast: Llauron, the gentle priest whose kindliness masks some truly masterful manipulation; Anborn, the disgraced general; rude angry desperate Jo, too dumb to live and too wounded to abandon; and Anwyn, beautiful vicious dragon queen who burned her own country to a crisp because we don’t stand for spousal abuse around here.

I could go on for some time explaining why everyone in the Symphony of Ages trilogy except for Ashe is worth picking up the book to meet, but I'll leave you to find them on your own, dear reader.

Because my views on the book are so divided, based on its double genre, I've given it two separate ratings. The prose verges on purple, but no more so than any other fantasy book of the 90's. The dialogue is lively. The worldbuilding and prophetic webspinning are, as I’ve said, top-notch. I love all the characters enough to continue rereading the series, all several thousand pages of it, despite Ashe. I trust the fantasy lovers among you will enjoy it as well.

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