Friday, August 03, 2012

Battle of the Books, Summer 2012, First Round :: Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper vs. The Games by Ted Kosmatka

The third matchup of the Summer Bracket of the 2012 Battle of the Books pits Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper against The Games by Ted Kosmatka. Per our contest rules, I have read the first 25 pages of both, and the winner will be the book I most want to continue reading.

Songs of the Earth: Tor Books hardcover, March 2012, 467 pages, cover illustration by JS Collaboration, Book One of The Wild Hunt. Elspeth Cooper is a UK writer. Songs of the Earth, her first novel, was originally published in Great Britain by Gollancz in 2011. The first 25 pages is conveniently exactly two chapters.

Gair, a novice Church knight who has been imprisoned for months, faces judgment from his Order. Alderan surreptitiously watches the proceedings. Gair is found guilty of witchcraft and the punishment is death by burning. But Gair is granted clemency by the Preceptor, to the protest of the Elder Goran, and his sentence is commuted to branding, excommunication, and banishment.

After his hand is branded, Gair was brought to an inn by Alderan. Gair doesn’t know the older man, and reluctantly accepts the needed help he offers. Alderan asks Gair how long he has been able to hear the music. Alderan knows the unspoken ways magic manifests itself in young people. Gair relates some of his own experiences. When Gair complains of an odd headache, Alderan suspects that a witchfinder is already on Gair’s trail.

The Games: Del Rey Books hardcover, March 2012, 356 pages, cover design and illustration by David Stevenson based on a photograph copyright Reichelt R./plainpicture/Corbis. Ted Kosmatka is a US writer. The Games is his first novel. Kosmatka’s short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. The first 25 pages covers a prologue and almost all of chapter one.

In the prologue, a boy, Evan Chandler, is tested by doctors and men in suits. A teacher working with Evan was seriously hurt. Evan has neurological abnormalities, an odd mix of gifts and disabilities. Evan is taken away from his mother to apparently be a research subject.

In chapter one, Dr. Silas Williams, head of Olympic Development, attends the laboratory birth of a genetically engineered creature, a future gladiator. The USA has won the last three gold medals awarded in the gladiator completion, a fight to the death event where the only rule is no human DNA. Silas designed the previous winners, but under pressure to win, the commission this time chose a disturbing design by the unseen Evan Chandler. The appearance of the newborn creature shocks even its developers.

The Battle: These are two very different books: a medieval-like high fantasy with witchcraft and a near-future science fiction thriller with genetic engineering. Both are first novels. Both appear to involve questions about the ethics of the book’s fantastic element, although perhaps in differing degrees.

In Songs of the Earth, witchcraft is condemned by the religion of the Goddess. What’s unusual is that the accused witch, Gair, is also quite religious. As many fantasy protagonists, Gair has no family. He’s a likable enough character and seems honorable. Magic is interestingly portrayed as a natural development, at least for a few people, needing to be controlled, instead of something painstakingly learned from arcane books.

The Games seems to be heading towards scientists unwisely creating something monstrous. There’s antagonism and competition between the various scientists and administrators. Genetically designed Teddy pets and renewable marriage contracts make the setting not exactly like today. The writing in The Games is tighter, angrier, but I haven’t yet been pulled emotionally into the story.

It’s hard to say which book will ultimately be more entertaining after reading a mere 25 pages. But I’d rather read more about the witch escaping the witchfinder than about the gladiator beast.


Songs of the Earth will advance to meet either Hunter and Fox by Philippa Ballantine or Taft 2012 by Jason Heller in the second round.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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