I read Katherine Roberts’ Song Quest (book one of the three-book ECHORIUM SEQUENCE) as a child when it was first published in 1999. A few years later it was the first book I ever cajoled an unsuspecting customer into buying during my Saturday stint at the local bookshop. It is one those books that has stayed with me and I indulged myself with a re-read partly for stroll down memory lane and partly because I do not think it has received the attention it deserves. As with most things revisited from childhood it did feel smaller and less exciting when viewed from the tarnished eyes of adulthood (which is why I will not be returning to Disneyland) but I still think it is an exciting and, most importantly, enchanting read for the young and young at heart.
Rialle, along with her friends Fren and Chissar and class bully Kherron, are all training to become Singers at the Echorium. This school of blue stone is where gifted children are taught five songs that, when sung properly, control those who hear them — Challa for dreams, Kashe for laughter, Shi to make you cry, Aushan to make you scream, Yehn to kill. The Singers use their songs to heal people from the mainland, to control people in power, and to protect vulnerable half-creatures. Song Quest starts as the novices patrol the beach of Singer Isle, searching for valuables from a recent ship wreck. Rialle, who is particularly gifted, hears the merlee calling to her from the sea. Half man, half fish, the merlee are being hunted by cruel mainlanders and are crying out for the Singers’ help.
Only children can hear the merlee and so Rialle is chosen to accompany Singer Toharo on a mission to the mainland to confront those who are illegally hunting the intelligent creatures. Rialle, with the support of stowaway Frenn, must persuade the merlee to quieten the storm and allow them safe passage. Meanwhile treacherous Kherron has slipped away from his classmates. Arrogant and angry, he decides to travel to the mainland with a rough band of hunters to make his fortune. Little does he know the price of his passage involves gutting the murdered merlee.
Roberts’ Singers, with their long hair dyed blue and their powerful songs, were enough to plant this book in my list of favourites when I first read it. I was delighted by the possibility of the songs, the way a small dose of Yehn can cause forgetfulness while a large dose will kill. The way that Challa can be both a cure and a weapon. It is saying something that before I longed to be a wizard, I longed to be a Singer. I would have been very happy for the whole of Song Quest to be set in the Echorium and it is almost a shame that the mission to the mainland takes up a lot of the plot. The magic of the book loses its way the further the characters travel from the school.
That’s not to say the plot slows down; in fact it speeds up a bit too much and thereby loses its magic touch. This is particularly true when the Singer party reach the Karch, the mountain kingdom where the merlee hunters live. As a child I was appropriately afraid of the Karch’s evil priest and his glittering spear that can tell lies from truth. As an adult I was less impressed and found that unlike the Echorium, the Karch was underdeveloped and the priest’s dastardly schemes were full of holes. But then that’s adults for you, spoiling all the fun.
Nevertheless the plot is compelling and well woven, particularly in the way that we follow both Rialle and Kherron on their separate journeys. Kherron is a rather likeable bad boy (aren’t they all) and it helps that you sense he’ll probably turn out alright in the end. I had some sympathy for his general irritability with Rialle who he dubs a teacher’s pet. Rialle, who manages to fit in a fair amount of sea sickness and wooziness, is less likeable. But her importance lies in her bond with the merlee, and her overriding passion to save them is immensely redeeming. Frenn is a classic loveable rogue, perhaps not the brightest tool, but don’t we all need a few jokes in times of mortal peril.
I was so glad to return to Song Quest. The story does weaken in the second half but the book is held together by the strength of the central premise and those haunting, magical songs. Oh, who am I kidding, I still long to be a Singer.