Kate Constable,
Chanters of Tremaris,
Book 1: The Singer of All Songs

(Arthur A. Levine, 2004)

I've reached a point where the thought of reading about yet another fantasy heroine who is a) 16, b) spunky, c) beginning to discover a vast amount of magical potential and/or d) of mysterious parentage, makes me groan and reach for another book. It is a sort of compliment to Kate Constable that, in spite of endowing her heroine Calwyn with all four qualities, she has written a book I enjoyed and think I'll probably read the two forthcoming sequels, too.

The plot of The Singer of All Songs, reduced to basics, involves the quest of a small group of young people trying to prevent a power-hungry prince from achieving world domination through the mastery of magic. This should sound familiar to all fantasy readers, and it isn't necessarily a discommendation -- after all, everyone from Tolkien to Lloyd Alexander has used something similar. The details of world, characters and magic are what determine merit, and Constable's aren't quite up there yet. The Singer of All Songs is a very readable YA fantasy that falls short of true excellence.

The magic of the world of Tremaris is based on sung "chantments" in nine disciplines: ice, iron, wind, fire, tongue, beast, seeming, becoming and a final ineffable one related to the Goddess. Differing vocal range and pitch have something to do with the practice of each, but exactly how the chantments work and why is largely left unexplained. It's an interesting idea, but there aren't enough guidelines to govern the magic. Similarly, what details are provided about the lands of Tremaris are wonderful, from the way honey is integral to Antaris's culture and used at breakfast and in the sickroom alike, to the unvocal speech of the tree people and the university at Mithates. They are too few of them to make the world feel convincingly real. It's like getting snapshots when you've been promised a full tour. It's also a shame that a map hasn't been included inside an otherwise beautifully designed book.

The Singer of All Songs has so much potential that it is frustrating that it doesn't realize it to the fullest. Constable's clear prose is capable of a brilliance and beauty that it only periodically delivers. Her characters are similarly uneven. Trout, a school boy who has "mad inventor" written all over his future, is also refreshingly down to earth and likable; on the other side of the spectrum, the healer boy Halasaa, with his quiet insistence that "this life is a dance, not a battle," is an intriguing and mystical figure. Unfortunately, the story centers around 16-year-old Calwyn, an acolyte of the priestesses of Antaris. She is virtually undistinguishable from a host of other 16-year-old fantasy heroines with unknown origins and an abundance of powers. Calwyn isn't unlikable, but neither is she a compelling enough character to really make her tale sparkle. And I will groan if there turns out to be a Star Wars-type revelation about her father's identity in later books....

For being the first in a proposed trilogy, Constable's debut stands pretty well on its own, perhaps to the detriment of relationships that could be (and ought to be) more thoroughly and convincingly developed throughout the series. Without being enamored of The Singer of All Songs, I'm still definitely interested in seeing where Constable takes her world and characters in subsequent books. Recommended, with some reservations, to YA fantasy readers, especially those interested in the combination of music and magic. Also try Katherine Roberts's Song Quest and Shalanna Collins' Dulcinea: Wizardry A-Flute for more musical YA fantasy.

by Jennifer Mo
21 January 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.