How did I not notice this novel until now? Shame on me! Go buy it, all of you! Go now and get the whole set! I'm in process of getting the rest of them into my hot little hands.
The book opens with a marvelous "Note on the text", explaining that these folk tales from the Annaren society have not ever been translated into English before. The legends of the Edil-Amarandh people are therefore being here presented for the first time by the author. This intro lends a bit of historicity to the book. It is of course utterly fictional, but still, a delightful device.
Maerad, our heroine, is a lowly slave in her mid-teens, living in a pretty depressing mountain stronghold at the beginning of the book. She's considered a bit of a witch, and has only a few memories of her mother to console her in her lonely life. An accidental encounter in a barn changes everything: or was it accidental at all? Escaping her life of sorrow and drudgery with a strange man named Cadvan puts her on a road filled with danger and surprises, but also many delights.
They must first escape the evil that holds her in her mountainous prison. Along the way, Cadvan begins to suspect there is far more to Maerad than even she knows. He is a Bard, a musician and teacher. All Bards in the land of Annar are teachers of some kind, or makers, of everything from music and writing to swordplay and carpentry. The Barding schools, scattered across the country, have traditionally been places of learning, hope, and service.... but a darkness is spreading through the land, and Cadvan is out to find out where it comes from. As he begins to know more about Maered, he begins to suspect that she is of an ancient and important line, and may in fact be the Foretold, who will save the world from being engulfed in evil. The two must travel across the land (well, not all of it yet, but I suspect that will come in the other books) to get assistance in getting Maerad instated as a Bard and to find out what is causing the growing Darkness.
SO much to like here. The author is a gifted writer who bothers to craft marvelous sentences and meaningful dialogue. The battle of Light against Darkness, obviously, The stunning poetry of the lyrics. Vast and sweeping in scale like Tolkien (it even has an awesome hand drawn map at the front, so cool!,) I found it easier to read overall. There's considerable backstory added at the end, an explanation of the "Ages" of Annar. The charmingly imperfect female lead character of Maerad is easy to love, and she visibly grows in her maturity, self-knowledge, and confidence as the book progresses, and her slightly mysterious but likable male guide, Cadvan, has a back story that is only just getting revealed as the first novel ends. The good guys are complex, not flat, and just like in real life, often disagree about thing and even aggravate one another-- but they are connected and they know it, simply because they all love the good. The bad guys are not written as flat characters either. In some cases, they even appear to be good: "demons appearing as angels of light", if you are Scriptural. But the evil they do is centered on selfishness, and the darkness that grows from that is threatening the entire land.
I was utterly charmed by the beautiful lyrics to the songs in this book, and am dying to hear them sung aloud. (I had the same feeling about the songs from Anne McCaffrey's glorious Pern series, and finally managed to get my hands on a CD called MasterHarper of Pern.) If anyone knows whether or not the songs from this series have been scored and/or recorded, I would be eternally grateful.
I loved this. LOVED it. Read it in two days flat. Have already ordered the rest of the series. Ms. Croggon avoids cliches and heavy-handed foreshadowing, and (rare for me) I did not often know ahead of time what was going to happen. The bit with Hem was a great twist to the story and I hope we get to find out what develops with him as the series progresses. The characterizations are so wonderful, I feel like I know some of the people in this book as real persons.
Regarding this book for children: I highly recommend it. The book contains no sex and the only romance present is shown between married couples, with the exception of one poignant kiss for Maerad. Scary monsters/ evil creatures like weyrs and wights, do appear, and there are several instances which refer to bad guys doing terrible things to innocent people, especially towards the end as Maerad's memories return. But I would say, nothing a 6th grader (say age 11?) cannot handle, especially if they have already read anything by Tolkien, or The Hunger Games.
Put it in every school library and push it at your children. Make them listen to the audio CD in the car. This is a great book for young adults ... and for us regular ones, too.