Song of the Beast by Carol Berg
Roc / Penguin Putnam PPBK: ISBN0451459237 PubDate:
Review by Victoria McManus
467 pages List price 6.99
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NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS.
Carol Berg's Song Of The Beast is a good introduction to this wonderful fantasy author's work because it's a standalone yet has length, intensity, and themes in common with her previously published Rai-Kirah trilogy ( Transformation, Revelation, and Restoration). This new novel has even stronger narrative drive than its powerful predecessors; it's a fantasy I didn't want to put down.
Like Lois McMaster Bujold, Berg knows how to grip her audience from the first page and fling them onto a rollercoaster ride. She begins with a tortured hero and lets things get worse from there. Aidan MacAllister was a singer and harpist who, for no reason that he could fathom, was imprisoned and abused by a dedicated keeper for seventeen years. When the book opens, he's just been freed, again with no explanation, and cast upon his own resources, which are almost nonexistent. He's now thirty-eight; his hands are so broken by torture that he can no longer play or even grip a cup properly, and he has not spoken or sung for seven years. Soon he discovers that though he is ostensibly free, he is still being pursued, and all those who come into contact with him are in danger of death. Aidan flees and hides for a time as he tries to recover from physical weakness and mental trauma. His goal after survival is not revenge on his cousin the King of Elyria, who imprisoned him, but to find out the reason his life was ruined.
Political power in the world of Song of the Beast is linked directly to possession of and power over dragons, which in this context perform much like B-52 bombers, if B-52 bombers could spit flame. In another sense, the dragons are like nuclear weapons, often causing fire and devastation beyond the immediate result of an attack. Only certain humans of the Ridemark clan can control dragons, and then only with the aid of special stones, one per dragon. Control is shrouded in secret ritual and is not entirely infallible; any slip in control can lead to terrible consequences. Aidan gradually pieces together that he, or his singing, might have been related to an incident in which dragons disobeyed. Though he cannot fathom how he might have done so, this is the reason for his imprisonment. Questions remain, however, as to the purpose of his torture and the reason he was freed. His questions, and the rest of the novel, turn out to be intimately linked to the dragons, their origins, and their future.
The second major fantasy element of the book is the Elhim, small hermaphroditic people who are omnipresent yet despised in Elyria and environs. They are more than they seem, and become steadily more important to the plot as the book progresses. The Ridemark woman Lyra lives with the Elhim in their secret sanctuary. Women are forbidden to ride dragons; Lyra was outcast from her clan for attempting it. She, like Aidan, must forge a new identity for herself as she decides with whom her true allegiance lies.
Strong female characters were present and active in Berg's Rai-Kirah trilogy, but this is the most detailed characterization of a woman Berg has given us so far in her work. I am looking forward to more; perhaps if there is ever a sequel, Lyra will have a larger role.
I look forward with impatience and anticipation to Berg's next publication, "The Bridge of D'Arnath" trilogy, available in 2004-2005.