Hero’s Song by Edith Pattou

February 12, 2010

Harcourt, 1991

Finished: February 11, 2010

Source: library shelves

Genre: YA high fantasy

On the scales: featherweight

I have been falling asleep to this book on and off since December.  In a nutshell, Hero’s Song is YA fantasy culled from Tolkien and a jumble of Celtic–particularly Irish–mythology.  Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t give up on it: there’s something so fresh and fearless about Pattou’s authorial hero worship.  If you’re going to imitate, why not imitate the best?

Writers of fantasy have been pillaging Middle Earth as long as its been around.  They joke and bluster and spatter blood to cover their tracks, but the one thing they never manage to get their hands on is the one thing they could really use: Tolkien’s cadence.  Pattou is different.  She grasps the mythic style.  She borrows reverently and (I think) unconsciously.  Hero’s Song was her first novel, and reading it was a bit like watching a baby fantasist taking her first steps.  It’s a book I would have liked to like.

Here’s the problem: I read Fire Arrow, the sequel to Hero’s Song, when my life was in post-college chaos.  You know how the right fantasy novel at the right time can give you an escape and a grounding the same time?

I wouldn’t mind repeating the experience, but it’s not going to happen.  Pattou selects formidably rich source material.  It overshadows her storytelling.  She also has a tendency to lay on the “realistic” details.

I could barely finished her third novel East of the Sun, either.  In East of the Sun the protagonist is a weaver.  I am a weaver.  I hadn’t yet learned to weave when I read the book, and even then–just because I sewed and liked cloth–I could tell Ms. Pattou didn’t know what the heck she was talking about.  She strewed craftswomanly sounding jargon with such a free hand that it immediately rang false, and the time frame for completing projects was just plain bizarre.  Anyone who had done a smidge of needlework, or even thought about how it might be done, would have realized as much.

It’s no fun being embarrassed for an author.  Has that happened to you?  I’m not saying writers need to become experts on a thing before they can put it in a story, I just wish they would read a couple of books about it and be careful.

In Hero’s Song, the Hero Raised In Obscurity is a teenaged gardener and a self-taught herbalist.  Setting aside for a moment the notion of a boy herbalist producing cures for third degree Fire Wurm burns and full-body sword slashes out of such everyday plants as comfrey and mallow, let me just say the gardening itself is really silly.

It’s like one of those bad old movies where the actor is supposed to be playing a musical instrument he has no idea how to play in real life, and he just waggles his hands around it.

Pattou knows the words “mulch” and “heliotrope.”  And she knows you bend and sweat a lot.  She’s definitely watched someone gardening.  But I don’t think she was paying much attention to what time of year it was, why they were doing what they were doing, or whether a country boy in what looks a whole lot like ancient Ireland would be staking tomatoes at all.

Reluctant to leave his gentle gardener’s life, Collun must go in search of his missing sister.  What follows is a lot of not-very-well-planned questing with a variety of companions: the love interest, the young poet Talisen, Crann the wizard, a stray member of the lately-reclusive elf race known as “Ellyl” (with a tame giant cat-wolf), and a prince.  There are episodes at a tavern, in malevolent woods, in elfland (which reminded me of Pope’s Perilous Guard), at court, and in a labyrinth.

Collun and his companions do their best to evade the band of Scathians and “morgs” who are mysteriously tracking them.  The morg are a race of monstrous creatures whom Queen Medb has welcomed into the unfriendly neighboring kingdom of Scath.  When I reached the set piece where Collun first meets the bad guys, I almost chucked the book:

The Scathians were thick and muscular and wore rough, travel-stained clothing.  They spoke in loud, slurred voices, punctuated by bursts of coarse laughter.  For the most part they used the language of Eirren, though with the gutteral accent of the Scathian dialect.

But there was one among them who did not speak at all.  He wore a long cloak.  Despite the warmth of the room.  He had the hood pulled up over his head.  It kept his face shadowed.  He sat back in his chair, almost motionless.  Now and again he lifted a long black cheroot to his shadowed moth.  Collun could see that his skin was gray, and he had only three fingers.

Pattou’s writing grows less clichéd as the book progresses. Talisen may have been lifted wholesale from Celtic literature, but his good natured boasts kept charming me when I least expected it.  In one poetic passage, the wizard Crann explains the world’s theory of magic.

The book has its moments, but while the writing grows less clichéd, the action doesn’t.  Another almost-chuck point was when Crann plummets over an precipice locked in mortal combat.

You can get clues from her choice of names.  There’s a whole etymology.  Just convert unvoiced C to voiced G and vice versa from time to time.

Gandalf

Crandalf

Crann

Scythia was the area of ancient Eurasia inhabited by the nomadic Scythians–ancient Greeks saw them as barbarians.  To Scathe is to hurt or wound.  Scath, Scathians: Pattou’s bad guys.

Medb is the same as Maeve from the The Ulster Cycle

Ellyl for elves may reach a little farther.  Aillil is the name of that bad queen Maeve’s lover and second husband in the Tain.  No apparent connection to the fairy race, except that the name may have stuck in the author’s head.  But there’s also Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Jewish and Christian folk tradition, related to the Sumerian “lil” or air, and from there to a whole host evil storm goddesses, demons, and sexy things that fly in and get you while you’re asleep with similar sounding names.  People of the air.  Fairies.  Elves.  Ellyl.

Morlocks, Michael Moor(g=c)ock, Morgan Le Fay, Morgana, The Morrigan (bad Irish goddess with evil crows, which show up as “scald crows” in Hero’s Song).  Or even more likely:

orc

org

morg

I could go on and on.  Once I started making spurious etymologies I could drum up enough interest to finish the book.  I am a naughty reader.  I take full blame for my time wastage.  I should have been reading Proust.

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4 Responses to “Hero’s Song by Edith Pattou”

  1. Jenny said

    Hahahaha, love the name etymologies. I sort of feel for her over the gardening though – of course if she didn’t know anything about gardening she should have left it alone, but I find gardening super intimidating.

    • trapunto said

      Aw, don’t be intimidated. Just don’t try growing tomatoes in ancient Ireland in the fall and you’ll be okay! I would feel sorry for her too, but it said in the author bio she spent a lot of her childhood dreaming in her grandmother’s rambling garden–some such phrase. It gave me the distinct impression that because she was a garden princess, she thought it would be easy fake the plant stuff well enough to convince the plebs. It’s not that hard to learn the basics of gardening by osmosis as a kid, if you’re interested, but I don’t think she was. Or in getting a gardener to fact-check her manuscript.

      I’ve said way to much about this.

  2. Nymeth said

    Sorry to hear you couldn’t get through East! I loved it, but then again, I know nothing about weaving and missed all of that completely 😛 And the fact that it’s based on my favourite fairy tale no doubt helped. But yes, research is definitely important. Someone out there will know more about the topic than the author does and detect any carelessness. Which reminds me of my experience with Card’s Speaker of the Dead. Characters who are supposed to be native Portuguese speakers making appalling mistakes = errr, no. I felt embarrassed for him too. Funnily enough, that remains my most controversial review to date. A year later I still get random anonymous insulting fanboy comments. 😛

    • trapunto said

      Funny! I’ll take it as a mark of distinction if I ever manage to invoke fanboy wrath!

      East of the Sun is my favorite too, or very near, so it should have been good, but in my case it hurt rather than helped. I had Mrs Molesworth’s retelling from the Tapestry Room in my head, and a couple of beautiful illustrated versions. The atmospheres clashed.

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