Wednesday 1 March 2023

Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear


Greg Bear (1951- 2022) was a well-known SF writer who concentrated mainly on classic science-focused SF. However, early on in his career, he wrote two novels in the fantasy genre which are very different: The Infinity Concerto (1984) and its sequel The Serpent Mage (1986). These form one continuous story and have since been published together as Songs of Earth and Power


The blurb for The Infinity Concerto reads: 

There is a song you dare not sing, a melody that you dare not play, a concerto that you dare not hear. It is called a Song of Power. It is a gateway to another world - a gate that will lock behind you as you pass, barring you from the Earth forever. When the Song calls to you, you must resist. For it is a world of great danger as well as great beauty - and it is not good to be human in the Realm of the Sidhe.

Michael Perrin is a teenage poet who befriends a composer, Arno Waltiri, who has written a concerto whose performance had some strange effects on the audience. Some of them disappeared not long afterwards, including David Clarkham, another friend of the composer who had bequeathed him a book and a key to Clarkham's house. Michael acquires the key and enters the house, only to discover that it is a gateway to another world - the Realm of the Sidhe - from which there is no escape.  

The Sidhe (think Tolkien's elves, hostile to humans) only permit those humans who have arrived in the Realm to live in one town: Euterpe. There is another town nearby where the Breeds live (the result of mating between humans and Sidhe); Halftown. These towns, and the Blasted Plain desert surrounding them, are known as the Pact Lands. Beyond the Pact Lands, where humans are not allowed to travel, is Sidhedark. 

All of this was the creation of one of the Sidhe gods - Adonna, or Tonn - in order to provide a land where the Sidhe could live in peace after a ferocious inter-species war many millions of years before. More recently, tensions had arisen over Clarkham's ambition to establish hiself in power as the Isomage, the most powerful of the handful of mages (magicians capable of "grand magic") in the Realm.

Michael is "adopted" by the Crane Women, a trio of Breed sisters of great age, who train him in some of the skills he will need to survive. This enables him to cross the Blasted Plain and enter Sidhedark, where he learns a great deal more about the nature of the Realm and its various inhabitants. He discovers that a Song of Power does not necessarily consist of music, but also of dance or other art forms. He experiences a sequence of strange adventures before being sent back to Earth, where five years have passed. He finds that Waltiri recently died and left all his assets to Michael. But that is not the end of the story...

The Serpent Mage blurb:

He'd been held captive in the land of the Sidhe, and when he returned home to Los Angeles all he wanted was to live like a normal, average man again. But there were hauntings on the city streets, and strange bodies in a crumbling old hotel, a Song of Power in the air, and an ancient creature summoning him from beneath the waters of a loch in Scotland. Michael had returned to California, but the Sidhe were following him home.

The rapidly increasing flow of hauntings on Earth prompts Michael to continue his Crane Women training, steadily increasing his own capabilities as he understands that he is likely to play a central role in developments. He discovers the only surviving score for Opus 45, the notorious Song of Power by Waltiri which had caused the initial disappearances. Together with Kristine Pendeers, a music student at UCLA, they plan another performance of Opus 45.

Meanwhile, Earth society is feeling the strain of the hauntings and Michael forms an assocation with Lt Harvey of LAPD, who believes his explanation. Michael learns that the Realm 

is an artificial offshoot of the Earth and is steadily degrading as the (almost, but not quite, immortal) gods who made it are dying; among them Manus, the Serpent Mage who was originally human.  As a result, the Sidhe are moving back to Earth. Also needing help are five thousand humans who had been kidnapped by the Sidhe because their cultural impact was felt to be too threatening for the sterile Sidhe culture. 

Clarkham spends much of this volume influencing events without participating in them, but the Isomage still has ambitions to become the dominant mage and kidnaps Kristine to put pressure on Michael. Another serious distraction is the appearance of Shiafa, a beautiful young Sidhe woman who is the daughter of another mage. The climax of the tale is positive and satisfyingly low-key. 

 Songs of Earth and Power is a difficult work to summarise. The setting and the plot are highly unusual, making it frequently difficult to imagine the next turn of events. The story cludes a great deal concerning music, especially film themes, mentioning various composers and arrangers. 

To sum up, Songs of Earth and Power is an extremely impressive achievement, one of the best contemporary fantasies I have read. Highly recommended.

One point which I noted - I read the books straight through first, meaning to skim-read them again in writing this review. However, I ended up reading most of the story twice over, and I was surprised to realise that I was even more impressed with it after the second reading. Clearly, I read too quickly and thereby risk losing of lot of detail on the first reading; something to watch out for!