I was attracted to Rhapsody, the first book of the Rhapsody trilogy, by way of its critical acclaim as one of the best fantasy debut in years. The book does not disappoint. It’s a marvellously executed masterpiece of high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien that we all know and love. The characters are original and wonderfully appealing, the setting at once exotic and beautiful. Elizabeth Haydon brings to life a rarity in modern fantasy fiction: a female protagonist. In Rhapsody, the eponymous heroine is a young woman, half-human, half-Lirin (something akin to an elven race), a musician, singer, and Namer, the latter being a practioner of an art that allows her to create magic by invoking qualities associated with the name of someone or something. Being on the run from villains, she unwittingly enlists the help of two mysterious characters: a hideous, deadly assassin and a monstrous, wisecracking military sergeant. Both are themselves fugitives from an ancient, omnipotent evil. Together they embark on a long journey through the center of the world, and find themselves in a strange new land, in a time that may have been centuries removed from their own. With all that they have ever known long gone, they must struggle to explore their new world and combat a horror that may have followed them from the old world. Tied into all of this is the fate of two young lovers who are brought together for the briefest moments before being flung centuries apart.
Haydon portrays a heroine that is immediately likeable and sympathetic. She is vulnerable yet strong, innocent yet wise, naive yet experienced, gentle yet hardened. Her fierce independence, touched with a fiery temper, is balanced only by her boundless compassion and sense of justice. Unlike many other heroes, aside from her innate ability as a Namer who can perform magic with her voice and her music, she doesn’t possess any other superhuman power. Even her skills have to be painstakingly learned and constantly practiced. She comes to master the use of the sword, but as the result of training, not inborn ability. This is a refreshing change from the Richard Rahl-stereotype who is given a magic sword and almost immediate gains the skills contained within it. The other two protagonists complement the heroine perfectly, and each has his own history and contribute significantly to the plot. The half-monstrous, possibly cannibalistic, sergeant is apt to dish out humorous one-liners, contrary to his fearsome appearance. The harsh, cruel assassin may yet learn to like and love Rhapsody as one of his own family. As the story progresses, the readers immerse in the intertwining lives of the three main characters and grow with them as they grow, until their peculiar relationship no longer seems strange but familiar and intimate.
Haydon has masterful command of the pen. Her prose is beautifully rendered; I often find myself going back over many a passage to fully relish and appreciate all of her words. She revels in bringing out details and manages to evoke not only sights but also sounds, somehow making them feel alive as if they could float out of the page. Her world is exotic, populated both strange and familiar races, creatures, and personae, brought to life with meticulous details. Her descriptive prose makes use of many modern scientific and technical elements, such as the description of nature of music and that of the physiology of a certain character. She bring to life many fantastic adventures. The passage through the center of the world is hardly a new concept, yet made startlingly so by very original ideas: the giant roots, the cleansing fire, the unimaginable horror dormant within. And of course, the ancient mountain realm of Canrif hasn’t produced such breathless anticipation in me since the Fellowship entered Moria.
The pacing of the book is steady. There is indeed a climax at the end, but along the way Haydon sprinkles enough revelations to keep the reader enthralled. There is seldom a boring moment when you wish the author would just get on to the next point. Even when the pace seems to slow, the dialogues are a joy to read. Instead of being space fillers, the sometimes acerbic, oftentimes witty, always razor-sharp verbal repartees are a feast for the eyes. Rhapsody in particular, has a tremendous wit, and a sly humor that rivals that of her monstrous friend. Their verbal exchanges do a great deal to lighten the mood and speed the story along.
If any complaint can be found, it would be with certain characterization of the heroine. Surely, her femininity offers her certain unique advantages over her traditional male counterparts. For one thing, she usually gets overlooked as the underdog at the start of a fight; many an opponent would come to regret the mistake, if he lives through it. Secondly, however unwittingly, she is able to attract and seduce male characters simply with her appearance. This comes into play often as Rhapsody is possessive of a stunning, perfect beauty. In retrospect, I was wrong to have said she is blessed with no inborn gift. Rhapsody’s beauty and its effect on men indeed prove powerful enough and significant enough to drive many major plot points. It’s just too convenient and detracts from her other positive qualities. Perhaps, as an offset to this unfair advantage, Rhapsody is blissfully oblivious of her own beauty, stubbornly believing instead that men happen to stare at her because of her racially mixed—thus freakish and alien—appearance. This self-delusion is kept up for the whole book and into the next! Given her astute power of observation, it would be hard to believe such inanity, which can only be ascribed to either extreme naïveté or plain stupidity.
The other complaint I had, albeit only a minor one, is the speed with which the assassin character is able to build a powerful, sophisticated civilization from scattered tribes of a primitive people. In contrast, in Robert Jordan’s universe, it took the hero the whole book and more to do more or less the same (on the other hand, as of now Jordan’s series is also 10 books and counting, with the end nowhere in sight). Perhaps this isn’t so much a weakness as a stretch in the mantle of believability, but this hardly detracts from the enjoyment of the book.
Originally posted December 23, 2003 on Amazon.com