- Apr 9, 2016
Echoes of the Great Song has always been one of my favourite Gemmells - possibly because of how different it is to the others - but I’d forgotten until my most recent read just how dark it was.
In the first few pages we’re introduced to some of the members of the Avatars, a race who founded a global Empire on the back of immense mystical power but are now frantically clinging onto their last scraps of power after a global cataclysm. There’s Ro, a fussy and proud racist who gives little thought to what others are worth save in their use to him. There’s Rael, the general whose eagerness to protect what’s left results in him giving immense license to his soldiers, for good and bad. And there’s Viruk, an insane sociopathic monster. They’re a pretty unflinching examination of the evils of Empire, if not all that deep.
And through them, we begin to meet the people opposing them. Some are members of the Vagars, some are members of near by unrelated tribes such as the Mud People, and all of them are murderous in an unpleasant way. Their hate is very understandable but it is more than the Avatars who suffer for it. Each of Merana, Ammon and Boru are responsible for deaths on their own side. Echoes of the Great Song quickly shapes up into being a case of Evil vs Evil.
But there is a third and even nastier player in the Almecs - an alternate reality version of the Avatars who escaped the cataclysm by shifting dimensions. Incidentally, the grandiose high fantasy nature of this book is one of the many reasons I hold it in high regard. Every now and again I want some fantasy that goes all the way down the wormhole of what is possible. Bonus marks for the little snippets at the head of each chapter, telling us how the events we read in time became legend. A story within a story.
The presence of the Almecs forces the two sets of violently opposed bigots to work together if any of them are to survive. Their main hopes rest on the handful of genuinely reasonable and nice characters - the Avatar Talaban; the Vagar Sofarita; and the Native American-expy Touchstone. They help guide the others through the evolutions they must make and also undertake the desperate quest to stop the Almecs (while everyone else tries not to die).
I almost wish they weren’t there. They’re enjoyable characters, but watching Rael and Merana struggle towards mutual respect and understanding is the most interesting part of the book. Which is unusual for me. I hate authors who place me in the mind of the prejudiced and ask me to have sympathy. But Gemmell does it as nearly as well as Pratchett.
Echoes of the Great Song features wonderful fantasy conceits and intensely human challenges. It’s a book by Gemmell, so you know the action scenes will be good (at the very least), with Viruk hogging most of the best. It has just about everything, including a rich vein of tragedy that ties it all together. The only thing its missing is depth - this book could easily have been a trilogy and as a result, some things are dealt with swiftly. Part of me likes the tautness but there are events that would have been better for going slower.
That is a minor quibble though for Echoes of the Great Song is a humdinger. Highly recommended for anyone looking for high fantasy and low humanity.
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