Maerad is an orphan, living a difficult life as a slave in a rough, isolated settlement in the country of Edil-Amarandh. She has vague memories of a horrible battle, after which she and her mother were taken into captivity and brought there, although her mother died years earlier. Maerad is now sixteen, and her only possession is the harp her mother had, which she plays occasionally, during special occasions, for the Thane of the holding. The rest of the time life is a long series of dreary chores, punctuated by attempts to protect herself from the spite of her fellow slaves or the unwanted advances of men.
One day as she is milking the cows, she starts to see a stranger standing in the barn. He is a Bard, a singer and keeper of history, endowed with magical Gifts that allow him to speak with animals and influence the minds of others. He immediately recognizes that Maerad is a Bard as well, although she has not been taught and cannot yet use the Speech. He offers to take her with him, although he warns her that he might be bringing her into danger. Maerad doesn't hesitate to leave her hateful life behind, but she doesn't know that she is taking the first steps down a most difficult path, a path that has already been described in prophecies and songs. An epic adventure ensues, with this book only the first part with three more volumes to come.
I am a huge lover of fantasy novels, as anyone who reads this blog will be aware. However, I really need to be in the mood for a big thick high fantasy, and this one sat on my shelf for way too long before I finally decided to pick it up. I was hesitant about making the commitment, not only because it is such a long book, but because it is followed by three more thick ones, and do I really need another series on my tbr pile? Apparently I do!
I was hooked by this book from the very first page. Yes, it has many of the typical elements of a high fantasy novel - the prophesied hero(ine) as an orphan, discovering her true heritage in a world beset by the threat of evil, and long journeys across the countryside, battling creatures of the dark on the way to combat that evil, etc. But there is much that sets this book head and shoulders above its many fictional counterparts. First of all, the storytelling is superb - I felt at once I was in the hands of a master storyteller, and all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the deft weaving of plot, character, setting, and theme.
The characters are quirky and interesting, not at all stereotypical, and the setting is a richly constructed world with its own history and myths, social structure, politics, and well-thought-out magical system. The skillful world-building gave me a true feel for the culture of the place, reminding me very much of Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels. And Croggon's skillful characterization, the way the characters' relationships with each other developed, brought to mind those little humorous respites from the darker action in the Harry Potter books, where friendship flourishes and, even if it's only for a little while, life is just fine. Such moments remind the reader exactly what the heroes and heroines are fighting for - what's at stake - ratcheting up the tension when the plot turns critical.
I thoroughly enjoyed the opening book of this series. Maerad is a strong character, with believable strengths and weaknesses, one I quickly came to care about, along with the other characters who accompany her along her fateful path. I tend to lose patience with fantasy series that have huge casts of characters and constantly switch viewpoints, mainly because I always have one point-of-view character I can't wait to get back to, and have to put up with the other ones meanwhile. Croggon uses an omniscient narrator here, but she tends to stay close to Maerad's point of view most of the time, which makes for a more personal reading experience. While this is just the first volume, and there is clearly much more to come, the book does have its own narrative arc and ends with a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this first book of the Pellinor series, which I am certain will be on my list of favorite books read this year.
Books in the Pellinor series:
1. The Naming
2. The Riddle
3. The Crow
4. The Singing
The Naming (#1 in the Pellinor series) by Alison Croggon (Candlewick Press, 2006 - first published in Australia as The Gift by Penguin Books Australia, 2002)
Also reviewed at:
Someone's Read It Already: "Croggon’s love for her characters, as well as her love of language, poetry, and words, enriches the story from being a fairly typical epic fantasy to something more."
Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops: "A fascinating group of characters keep this tale engaging and certainly had me hooked on one of the best fantasy series I have come across."