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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Second Childhood: Review of Song Quest by Katherine Roberts

About the Song Quest Campaign:

As some of you may or may not know, The Bookette is hosting a Blog Tour to help get this awesome book back in print. I am very fond of this novel and am sad to see that it’s no longer being put out there for new readers in bookstores, so here’s my contribution to the cause. For more details, please go here, or follow the Bookette's blog for more updates and new reviews of Song Quest.

Summary (From Backcover of US 1st Edition paperback): Far from the purple plains and the mountains of midnight, nestled in the crystal-blue waters of the Western Sea, lies the Isle of Echoes, where the forces of good and evil are held in harmony by strange and mysterious people: the Singers. The Singers can hear the silent voices of magical half-creatures and can speak over great distances using only their minds. Safely hidden away on the enchanting Isle of Echoes, they use their unearthly songs to keep peace in their world.

But a great evil threatens to destroy their isle and all that is good in the world. Now, only two young Singers can defeat the forces of darkness: kind Rialle, her voice as sweet as sunlight, and rebellious Kherron, whose longing for freedom may thrust him into the arms of the enemy.

Alone, stranded far from home, Rialle and Kherron are caught up in a dangerous and sinister web, struggling against the powers of darkness that threaten to destroy their world.

Note: As this was a book I read when I was a kid, I have pretty deep emotional responses in the re-read that colours my perception and how I interact with the book. For this reason my review format will be different from my usual reviews, and I’ll be using the format I previously utilized for my old Throwback Thursday posts, which I’ve stopped because 1) I got lazy, and 2) my approach is less review-heavy and more about my personal experiences of a reread, ie. very different from the TT meme going around. I decided to call these types of reviews Second Childhood as a tentatively new feature on my blog, but as I'm not the greatest with keeping to schedule, I'll hesitate to make any promises on this being a regular feature... For now.

Blast From the Past: Growing up, I did not own many books, let alone new ones. For one thing, we had a strict budget on what we could buy because we were new immigrants trying to make it in the city, and had various mortgages to pay off. (Of course my younger self never quite understood the details of our financial situation and all this just translated to me growing up knowing I can’t ask for gratuitous toys like tamogotchi even if I really wanted it because everyone else had it.) Also, no one in my family was a really keen book reader besides me, so book buying was not the biggest priority on their list of things our family Must Need. I mean, they bought all the basic early learner books to try and help boost our English reading abilities to acceptable levels, but buying novels for leisure? Hardly ever. The only new, non-used novels I ever got were three of those Princess Diaries from around the world books one Christmas, Brian James’ Tomorrow Maybe, Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series, and the Harry Potter series. (I also smuggled some Artemis Fowl books into our cart when we shopped around Costco.) An overwhelming majority of the books I read growing up were checked out lovingly with the library card my dad helped me get.

One of the many reasons why Katherine Roberts’ novel Song Quest was so special to me was that it was one of the four used books I got to pick out during that one time my parents decided to indulge me when we were roaming the flea market. (FYI, All of them fantasy titles, lol.) It was one of the few books I actually owned and loved, and the fact that I picked it out for myself made it that much more special. I think I was really in love with the idea of wielding magic through song. I remember my younger self reading the Echorium Anthem displayed just after the map splash page, imagining a song in my head and giddy over the idea that a singing voice can have a magical power. Also, I was simply charmed by Kherron, one of the two protagonists, which I’ll explore and elaborate on in the Re-visiting experience section. All my favourite scenes happened in Kherron’s storyline, and I was very fond of his new Mainlander friend Lazim. Him and Lazim were my two favourite characters back then. Finally, it was just an amazing yarn of a story, a world familiar enough to identify with but with enough magic infused into it to make the world special, with doses of high stakes and how it’s up to the kids to save the day. I reread this book so many times as a kid that you can see how worn the cover is around the edges, the creases. I always considered Song Quest one of my formative childhood books and first few fantasy loves.

WARNING: A few spoilers in this section below

The Re-visiting Experience: I actually haven’t reread this book since I started high school (… wow, so long ago), so rereading this book really took me back. It was really fun like the first time around when I read this novel, and I’m so happy that the whole singing aspect was just as captivating as I remembered it. I still love Kherron’s storyline, but I confess that I’m kind of shocked at my younger self for liking him so much. As enjoyable as he was, he was honestly not a nice person and had a bit of a mean bully streak. His charisma still took over the stage and he was always quick on his feet with savvy smarts, poking his nose all around trying to untangle the big secret of the Mainlanders, and at the end of the day I still picked Kherron’s story over Rialle, lol. Perhaps I liked him so much because lots of action takes place in his storyline, especially compare to Rialle’s tale. And honestly, I do still like him. How he was a bit vain and selfish, and terribly jealous of the girl who always beat him for the #1 spot in class, and how behind his show of arrogance is a boy desperately wishing for the recognition he wants, how behind everything he does is a show to try and prove himself. (Actually, thinking about this carefully, I think I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for the selfish, ambitious types, so I guess I shouldn’t have been this surprised that I liked, and still like Kherron.) Also, I think with these flawed characters, we get more room for great character development, which always makes their transformative journey very interesting to see. This is not to say that Kherron is a totally nice person by the end of the story, but he’s humbled by the end of the journey, and does some growing up, while still being the believable hothead impatient boy he was at the beginning of the novel.

The thing I was really shocked by though? Was my younger self’s love of Kherron/Rialle. I mean, as much as I like Kherron, he totally does NOT deserve Rialle. She’s just too good for him. Also, I wouldn’t wish Rialle on someone who's hotheaded and selfish. A relationship between the two of them will just go badly, with Rialle going into tears and Kherron yelling his frustration. I think I liked Kherron/Rialle because I liked Kherron, and of course the Big Damn Hero of the day should get the girl. Also somewhere in my mind I was just used to the idea that Nice Guys Never Win, so when the Nice Guy did, I was taken by surprise. I guess that’s why I was so shocked when it didn’t quite work out like that when I was young. It didn’t fall into usual formula I was used to! It was weird! But rereading this again, I’m really glad Rialle ended up with Frenn. (Okay I guess this was a spoiler, but come on, they were making eyes at each other since page one at the beach, it was so obvious, even if my twelve year old self couldn’t see it.) They’re just really sweet on each other and adorable, and I love how Frenn worships the ground Rialle walks on and thinks she’s brilliant, lopsided smiles and jokes always at hand. The biggest change when I reread this novel was that I utterly and completely fell in love with Frenn 50 pages in. I never liked him when I was young because I was so Kherron-biased and the two boys didn’t get along, but now that I’m older I see all of Frenn’s charms. Rialle and Frenn just fit each other to a T. They’re just two really kind people, one who would do anything to help others and the other who would do anything to stay by the side of the love of his life. I think we need more romances like this in YA, wherein the bad boy does NOT get the girl for a change, and the main romance is just very sweet and beautiful and heartwarming.

I also appreciated Rialle’s storyline a lot more in this reread. I mean, it wasn’t that I hated Rialle back when I was young. I just thought she wasn’t half as interesting as Kherron. I do still think her storyline doesn’t have that zing like in Kherron’s that drew me in so much, but I do appreciate the thoughtful, emotional, close introspect we got from Rialle’s perspective. While Kherron’s story has more action, Rialle’s has more heart, and they balance each other out very nicely. Also it’s topped with that sweet love story of cuteness, and I aww’ed too many times in this reread to count. I also like Rialle much more as a person now. I used to think she was boring and too weepy, but I see and appreciate her shy kindness, the way she would try so hard for others she loves, and the way she fights back not with action like Kherron, but with her singing abilities, showing time and again that her spot as #1 in her class isn’t for nothing.

I’ll confess that a plotline that fell flat for me was the manipulated king storyline. The novel basically erased Lord Azri of responsibility for the Half-Creatures massacre. I don’t really buy a “good” king who was so easily tricked and used to justify the killings, and he comes across more as a weak leader and a naïve fool to me more than anything. I mean, you never once checked to see how you were getting your medicine? Never did the rounds on the priests? A king like that, I kind of expect the whole kingdom of Karch to just crumble in its foundation. But this is honestly a minor quibble in relation to the rest of the very enjoyable story. ETA The book also suffers from an Evil Villain of Irredeemable Evil, but this villain figure is familiar enough to me in MG/YA fantasy for me to not really get hung up over it.

And finally, a thing struck me about this novel while I was reading it. This is one of those fantasy worlds that didn’t read as exclusively European medieval fantasy social infrastructure to me. The description of the people’s features were left vague enough for me to fill in any face I want, and there’s no emphasis on Awesomely Coloured Eyes, or Golden Locks of Luscious Hair or the beauty of pale pale pale white skin. And yet, when I was young, I always thought of the characters as ‘white’. This mentality of white-as-default is a pervasive and problematic reader’s response that’s outside of this novel though, and not much to do with the actual story itself. I just thought it’d be interesting to note.

All in all, an awesome reread experience, and I encourage everyone who’s keen on a different kind of fantasy to give this a shot.

Passage Quotes: (because I can. =P)

Some Frenn/Rialle cuteness-

"I don't want Challa. It makes me forget things. What if you're not around when Eliya's finished with me? I might forget you."
"Why wouldn't I be around?" Frenn stared at her for a moment, then pulled off the red bracelet he'd found on the beach, took her hand, and slid the thick metal up her arm. It went all the way past her elbow, and was still warm from his body. "You won't forget me now," he said, giving her that familiar lopsided grin as he scrambled to his feet. "I'd better go now. It'll be my turn soon."
Rialle fingered the bracelet, a lump in her throat. "But what if she gives you a Song?"
"Challa makes you dream, Shi makes you cry, Kashe makes you laugh, Aushan makes you scream, Yehn makes you die." Frenn repeated the pallet-ditty, still grinning. "She'll have to give me Yehn before I forgot you, Rialle! (pg. 28)

Kherron, being Kherron-

The caves have been a stroke of luck, but he'd been right about the tide. It had been far enough out for him to splash around three headlands without getting much more than the hem of his tunic and the bottom of his leggings wet. No one had come after him. Kherron smiled again. Ha, the others were pathetic. Follow meekly where Graia led, getting all excited over a few moldy old timbers and broken lanterns, when it was perfectly obvious the best treasure would be found where there weren't any people. And when he found it, even old misery-guts Eliya would have to recognize he was no longer a child and let him sing. (pg. 20)

Like my review? Think the book sounds interesting? Please consider buying one (Amazon.Com has a few copies left) or ordering it from your local library. I need people to talk to about this book! And maybe get more people on Team Kherron while I’m at it. Surely I’m not the only one who’s a sucker for those selfish, arrogant, ambitious types? Also please follow The Bookette for more updates on this Song Quest Blog Tour.


Unknown said...

Talk about a blow me away review! You have gone to so much effort and detail that I am in awe. I was really surprised to hear that you grew up loving Kherron. I always liked him least. He was too vain, too pig-headed. Frenn was always my favourite. He is so loyal and determined. You've made me want to re-read Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal LOL!!!

Thanks so much for being a part of the tour!

yuan said...

@Becky, lol I always did like the vain and stubborn types though. It's like, when people gave me Little Princess and Secret Garden, I'd pick Secret Garden any day. But yes, I see Frenn in a new light now. 8D

You know, I actually never liked CM or DQ as much as I liked SQ? Not that they were bad, they were enjoyable reads, but I didn't love it the way I loved SQ. This was probably because I was pining away for Kherron though, now that I look back. I may form a different opinion if/when I reread the sequels again.

lol, and thank you for starting this tour! I'm glad I can contribute. 8D