Modesitt, Jr., L.E. 1997-98. The Spellsong Cycle (The Soprano Sorceress and The Spellsong War). New York: Tor.

Reviewed 06 May 1998

The Soprano Sorceress (cover)
The Spellsong War (cover)
These books prove that an interesting idea is not enough to support a novel, let alone a series. Modesitt's premise is interesting: take a modern, classically trained singer with little or no power in this world (and let's make her life in this world a mess, too), and irrevocably transport her to a world in which magic is based on singing. The idea has real possibilities. Too bad the author didn't see fit to explore them.

One significant difficulty with these books could have been solved with a hard edit. At times, the author seemed to forget what series he was writing. For example, Anna (the protagonist; given the stupidity of her enemies, I hesitate to call her a "heroine") begins "spelling her water clean" in The Soprano Sorceress. Fine. Why, then, does she later "orderspell" her water to perform the same function? This isn't Recluce, with its (incomprehensible) magic system based on "order" and "chaos." This is far from the only example of insufficient editing, by either the author or the publisher, in this series; it is, however, the one that's easiest to demonstrate in a review this short. To list a few more:

  • A very young violinist is thought the best choice for making a "new" instrument (a guitar with gut strings) from a sloppy drawing she provides. Instrument-making is a difficult, distinct skill from playing the instrument. Even today, with our wide variety of power tools, mechanically processed woods, tools, and fasteners, sandpaper, and chemically balanced glues, it requires a lot of expertise to make an instrument from scratch. To compound this idiocy, Anna never has a backup made, never attempts to consult or hire a trained instrument maker about her "invention," and so on. And, of course, the invented instrument works properly the first time it's used.
  • Anna can't think of many songs other than love songs. After living through the Vietnam era? Anna can play a guitar with some degree of competence, which implies at least some familiarity (for a singer) with either folk or contemporary popular music (since a classical guitarist does not use the voice, and a classical singer does not accompany him or herself. Even adapting Gilbert and Sullivan would have been easier than some of the tortured gyrations she goes through, perhaps to demonstrate that performers can't write. (?)
  • The protagonist is perfectly capable of politically outmaneuvering those who've lived and breathed politics their entire lives.

To top it all off, there's essentially no character development, a "newly desertified" milieu that would probably have been a near desert without any magical intervention, an idiot plot, stilted writing, cliches . . . you get the picture.

Once last comment: the cover of The Spellsong War is an absolute disgrace. The "bridge" being raised in the background is not as described in the book and is an engineering impossibility—it's so narrow that nobody could use it; the slope is impossibly steep (and the wrong shape); even solid stone would require lots of piers; the approach (near) end is anchored on air. Even if this is supposed to show the bridge being raised, these mistakes are unacceptable. Cover artists, please do a little more homework. I know that you don't always get to read the entire book before illustrating it, but this is ridiculous.

Overall rating: 1 star
The basic premise had a lot of promise. It's really frustrating to see how few authors have learned the lessons available in H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (3
stars) (out of print), which does a nice job of showing the effect of 20th Century Man (or Woman) on other societies.

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