Before we begin, allow me to make one thing abundantly clear: I love books. I adore books. I live for books. (Well, books, cheese, red wine and oranges, but books are the main focus here) Ever since I was a kid, books fascinated me. The idea that men and women from the other side of the planet, from 200 years ago, from the period of the Roman Empire and even earlier had written something down and that I could read it in the modern day was a fantastic and wonderful thing for me. Not so much for my parents, as I consumed a book the same way I consumed Pringles and raisins: voraciously and often without pausing to breath.
I have read hundreds of excellent books, many of which I have reread time and time again. As I am writing this offshoot sentence, I am currently rereading the novel ‘The Winter Knights’ from the Edge Chronicles for possibly the 4th, maybe 5th time.
But I get carried away. The book series I am going to recommend today is one that I discovered purely by accident and might not have purchased were they not part of a massive charity book sale way back in 2013. That series is Elizabeth Hayden’s ‘Rhapsody Trilogy’.
I came across the trilogy during the summer of 2013, the same year that I started university. I was wandering around a garden centre with my parent as they went off in search of some new plant to put in the hanging baskets. I was happily perusing various crates and piles of well-loved books of various ages (in the same trip I came across an early 20th century, leather-bound copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that I have sadly lost in the vast library that I have made for myself and continue to expand with every month). I had already chosen a few books that seemed intriguing (If I remember correctly, the aforementioned ‘Pride and Prejudice’, a copy of ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert and a Terry Brooks novel, title unknown), but I couldn’t find anything else that really tickled my fancy. Then, purely by accident, I knocked over a small pile of old Star Trek novels, revealing a trilogy of books that all shared the same author: Elizabeth Hayden.
I picked up the first one, the pale blue cover edged with a stone effect border showed a picture of a white horn on a brassy background and the title: ‘Destiny’, the second called ‘Prophecy’ was much the same, though with a picture of a pale purple dragon, finally there was ‘Rhapody’. Clearly, the last book was older, with a heavily creased cover and a weathered and sun–bleached spine, but it also had a completely different style of cover; a broad tree, with three figures facing it, their backs and sides facing the reader and with soft golden light falling through the leaves and branches. It was this cover that intrigued me the most, as the three figures stuck me as a rather odd combination (admittedly, this was before my love of tabletop gaming was fully discovered, as the trio represent the basic party balance of melee/magic/stealth rather well, but I am getting off topic).
The character at the forefront of the picture was large and broad, a variety of swords hanging from his back and a stave in hand, a shock of red hair escaping from beneath his rounded helmet. The seconded closest was dressed completely in shades of black; full hood, long cloak and all. He looked the part of the rogue almost perfectly, the only thing that seemed odd was he was holding what appeared to be a violin or similar stringed instrument (it isn’t but, again, getting off topic), that and he was the only character facing front towards the cover. Finally, the furthest back was the only woman in the picture, long flowing blonde hair reaching to the back of her knees, a sheath on her back and her arms raised above her head as she gazed at the tree branches side on to the others.
Know, I could easily have just seen this as another collection of elf, human and dwarfish individuals on some mediocre fantasy novel that is now long forgotten, but the cover intrigued me. I always hate it when people judge things by the cover, but this is one of the few instances where I decided to do precisely that. I bought the books, took them home and put them into my uni-box.
And that was where they stayed for a few weeks whilst I ploughed through the Game of Thrones books that I purchased a month or so before, I completely forgot about them until I dug them out 6 weeks into my first term after I finished the first half of ‘A Sword of Storms’. Feeling in need of a break from the grim and ever-darkening world of Westeros, I decided to take the plunge.
And after that point, I couldn’t put the first one down for a full month.
The world in which the story was based was incredible: a world based on time and music, where magic is tied to the names, where names are tied to notes and where using either can bring new meanings to people and beings so long as you weave a song using their ‘naming note’ (similar to how we view star signs). The world was rich in numerous people and cultures, not the standard hobbits, elves and dwarfs, but lirnglas (skysingers) and the many variants within, firbolg and dhracian (both discussed in more detail later into the trilogy), as well as the demonic F’dor and great elemental dragons. Not only this, but every character you meet, regardless of where you meet them comes back at some point in the novel, mostly notably Sam, whom we meet in the introduction before losing sight of him for nearly a full novel, and the enigmatic worker in his bubble of compressed time who oversees the entire story through his machine, allowing him to adjust the timeline and witness history as he attempts to save the world from utter destruction.
The books work around a series of prophecies, each tying into at least one of the characters at a time, the most notable of which being the Prophecy of Three around which a majority of the plot is centred, as well as the deep and thoughtful development of our main three characters: Rhapsody; the namer, Grunthor, the half-firbolg sergeant-major, and The Brother, who later becomes known as Achmed, the assassin. These are our main characters and the children of sky, earth and blood respectively, as mentioned in the very first prophecy we hear.
Rhapsody is our female lead; a driven young woman, trying to make a name for herself through music and stories, with the unique power to name things and change who/what they are. Grunthor is a large and powerful being, with a surprisingly soft heart and a uniquely abrasive sense of humour, always keeping people on their toes and looking after those he cares about, regardless of the consequences. Finally, there is The Brother; a man enslaved by a demon he desperately wishes to destroy, on the run from the same being in the hopes that by escaping the place they live, they can break its hold over him.
Each of them has their own story and goals and even though you have probably seen each one a dozen times over, Haydon writes each of them in such a way as to make them seem so incredibly human, with flaws and emotions that feel genuine and really engage with you. Even though they live in a world where demons can possess even the most powerful of beings and burn civilisations down into nought but ashes, they still manage to find time for relationships and development beyond simple good and evil. A prime example in this is The Brother: his need to break the bonds that hold him to the shadowy figure of the F’dor serve as his drive for the majority of the first third of the story, but, through simple accident, finds himself in a situation he did not expect, did not really want, nor sure of how to best adapt to the new path that lies ahead of him. Whereas, Rhapsody tags along with her other two friends after a rushed encounter trying to escape from the crony of a man she has a notably volatile history with, but when they arrive at their destination she goes about trying to improve the lives of the people she meets; saving children, writing songs and adopting almost every child she comes across so she can ‘play grandmother’ (explained that as a grandparent she can do whatever she wants with them without needing to worry about immediate consequences, that’s what the parents are for). Rhapsody is optimistic and joyful, with a strict pseudo-religious philosophy given to her by her mother, yet she is also vulnerable and unsure how she can survive knowing how she has been manipulated and trapped in the past. Grunthor is loyal, brash and vicious, yet he brings a strange buoyancy to the trio and despite being the most grounded of them all, he often proves to be the voice that lightens the mood and brightens their spirits, he plays the roles of the gentle giant and savage monster, sometimes mere lines apart, yet never comes across as poorly written or too extreme, maintaining a character who manages to charm and intimidate his way through most of his life (In fact, he was the inspiration for my first Dungeons and Dragons character, but again, getting off topic). Finally, The Brother is a slippery and pragmatic man with a grim and horrific past that even when the three of them are fully acquainted and on speaking terms, he refuses to tell us the full story, we eventually learn fragments from Grunthor, but the greater story grows as they delve deeper into the new world they escape to after a long stint travelling via the tree we see on the cover of the first book. The Brother seeks freedom from tyranny, yet he is himself a tyrant, he wishes to see the firbolg established as a nation, respected and feared by all, yet uses fear to bring them into line – the man is a brilliantly written paradox, simultaneously straining to bring about change, yet rigorously holding to the rules and structures that dominate his mind, not that this stops him from engaging in activities such as blackmail or reawakening a lost laboratory in order to revolutionise the firbolg as a people, he constantly seeks improvement, yet refuses to move. On paper he sounds horrific, a real mess and contradictory character that shouldn’t work, yet Haydon manages to bring not only an odd anti-hero charm to him but also a surprisingly honest and caring figure that refuses to allow anyone to harm him or his people, effectively turning the scoundrel of the first novel into a king over the course of 800 odd pages.
Not only are the main characters unique, the magic of this world is simultaneously everywhere yet rare enough to seem mythical when we finally see it for what it is. In this world names hold power, but notes and music hold true power as each name (when spoken/sung/played correctly) holds a naming note or can be given one by a skilled player or namer (hence the term: namer). As such, well-played music is equivalent with magic, as very little magic exists outside of the powers that the namers hold. The only other forms that we see come from the 5 elements: fire, wind, water, earth and aether. Some of which is good, some evil, all tied to at least one race present in the world and providing them with great powers unique to them. The greatest of which are the dragons; rare and god-like, these beings are more like extensions of the natural world than living, breathing beings. Their dominance over the elements is clear in this as we see the dragons can control all elements to a lesser extent with the exception of aether (in this universe, the element of light and the soul) as they were not made with aether and return to the earth when they die, turning into precious metals and gemstones over the course of centuries. We only see a handful in the trilogy, but their impact is long lasting and few have forgotten the power of the dragon that nearly destroyed the entirety of the new world, especially seeing as their bloodline is essentially royalty.
But the greatest power in these novels is the power of time. Our narrator at the start of each book is meddling in his machine, trying to solve problems by bringing different realms and people together, trying to prevent cataclysmic events from destroying the world that we see as we read into the two realms that we are shown. The first is the homeland or our three leads, but the second is a place distant both in miles and in time, as they find themselves transported into what is essentially the distant future after war and devastation ruin their homeland and force the people of the old world to travel into the new; a place familiar and yet different as aspects of their old world cling to the new one. The power of time also affects our leads as they essentially walk along the core of time that holds the world together (hint: the tree), essentially making them immortal. As such, when they arrive in the new world, they are seen as near mythical beings by the locals, with hilarious consequences on all three counts.
Now, I know that what I have written here has done little-to-no justice to the incredible pacing and build-up present in all three of these novels. There is no way to describe the richness of the story that is portrayed without utterly dis-servicing both the books and the author. A story that brings so many different elements together, going so far as to touch upon the strain that war can bring to people on a nationwide and personal scale, how devastating the effects of abuse and neglect can have on both men and women without coming across as heavy-handed or uncouth, whilst simultaneously bringing us a well-crafted story of sword, song and sorcery that manages to blend music into magic and shows politics as both a facade of incompetent individuals prancing around like peacocks and a real and terrifying force that can crush the life out of a fledgling nation that has barely begun to develop.
Haydon manages to create a world rich in lore and characters, bringing time manipulation into a story about magic without making all of the stakes that she has carefully crafted collapse under the strain that such a terrifying concept usually brings. The world is alive with people large and small, not one of the protagonists stands out as completely infallible, they all bear their own scars and shadows and they struggle to find sense in the choices that they are forced to make. Not one of the characters we meet is truly good or evil, the only exception being the F’dor, but even then they come across as both weary of the life they have had to survive, constantly looking over their own shoulder, terrified of the possible consequences that their life could bring, and yet coming across as an eternally devious being with little regard for any life beyond its own (and even this is fleeting at best), striving to exterminate all life so that it and its kind can finally have the (non)existence denied them by the beings that created the world and the other races.
Speaking of the F’dor, the villains in this novel come in all shapes and sizes and each one seems just as dangerous or unhinged as the next. Both human and demon are shown to be equally debased and despicable in the ways that they manipulate and double-cross; breaking hearts, stifling lives and destroying the purity that others have striven so hard to kindle and grow. True, the demons of this world wish to utterly destroy all life, but the human villains also strive to bring nought but destruction upon those who oppose them or refuse to appease their demands. I have read very few novels that made me hate human characters as much as George R R Martin’s Joffrey Baratheon, but Haydon manages to do precisely that with her first (and possibly most minor villain); Michael. I will go into no deeper detail than this, in order to truly understand the scope of this characters’ depravity you will have to read the novel as any attempt of mine to even begin to recreate it would lessen every aspect of it.
(That being said, should the two of them ever meet up, I dread the outcome and have prepared a selection of polearms specifically for such an occasion.)
Each book is easily worth the price they are available for online (anywhere between 70 pence and £12). For a world that delivers not only thrills on a personal and national scale, brings life into an idea very few novels that involve magic attempt to bring (magic as music and vice versa) and presents us with a variety of creatures and places that continue to surprise and develop long after you think it is possible to expand any further. The firbolg are a prime example of this, seen as nothing more than simple brutes, their portrayal in the latter half of the first book develops into a rare and wonderful opposite to the standard expectation of the ‘orcish race’ within classically inspired fantasy.
With a world just as (if not more so) rich and detailed as Westeros, with a story and a plethora of characters that shine with brilliant and intelligent design and portrayals of people who struggle to adapt and survive yet manage to overcome odds that seem insurmountable, even at the last minute, this trilogy is worth every second of your time.