I give myself credit for finishing The Infinity Concerto, the first book of Songs of Earth and Power, written by Greg Bear in 1986. The Infinity Concerto has a compelling opening chapter but fails to deliver on that chapter’s promise.
Michael Perrin, the book’s main character, is a sixteen-year-old boy living in southern California, an only child who wants to be a poet. At a family party his father introduces him to the composer Arno Waltiri. Waltiri is a man with a strange story about another man, Clarkham, who persuaded Waltiri to write a concerto. Shortly after it was played for the first and only time, people began to disappear. Over time, twenty people who were in the audience vanished from Earth.
Waltiri gives Michael a book, a key and a set of mysterious instructions. Then he dies. One midnight after his death Michael takes the book and the key and follows the enigmatic instructions he was left. He winds up on the Blasted Plain, in a world that is not Earth. This is the same place the twenty concert-goers, and other humans, have been drawn to.
Michael soon discovers that humans are rare in this world, and for the most part, kept captive on the Pact Lands, along with the mixed breed Sidhe-humans called Breeds. The Sidhe correspond to fairies or elves, and they hate humanity. Michael is apparently a pawn in an undeclared war between the Sidhe followers of the god Adonna, and the Council of Eleu. He is sent to the magical Crane Women to be trained in martial arts and other magical combat. Before he arrives at the home of the Crane Women, he is confronted by Alyons, a Sidhe who is charged with policing the humans.
The book follows Michael’s grueling magical training. When the Pact Lands humans stage an unsuccessful revolt, Michael lures Alyons into a death-trap and kills him. Michael then makes his way across the Blasted Plain and crosses its border. Earlier, he made this trip with the Crane Women. It was a harsh, devastating trip and the women needed a magical powder to protect them. This time Michael seems to cross the plain with no magical help at all. At the border he is visited by the shade of Alyons and inherits his Sidhe steed. He follows the river, meets several interesting characters, and begins to get more information about the original Sidhe-human war and the war of the Isomage, who was known on Earth as Clarkham. Ultimately, Michael must find Clarkham and decide whose side he wants to join.
There is a lot of poetry in the book, particularly in the first third, where Michael attends a ritual kaeli where the stories of the Sidhe and Breeds are told in verse. You must read the verses in order to understand the back-story. Later, Coleridge’s incomplete poem “Xanadu” becomes a critical piece of the plot. Bear’s Coleridge pastiche near the end of the book is quite well done.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the plot here, and the world is interesting, but Michael is hard to like. When a Breed woman with whom Michael is involved attempts to send him magically back to Earth, she is killed in the process. Michael spends about one sentence grieving for her. Later in the book, Michael assesses Nikolai, who was his helper in the Sidhe city: “Nikolai was obviously not competent enough to be anything but a spectator in this game.” While Michael does become smarter, he never becomes compassionate or loyal.
And at times the prose is just incomprehensible. Bear describes a young human woman wearing a blouse that is “white and cottony, cut short around her shoulders.” Hunh? Does he mean short-sleeved? In a later scene, Lamia “rolled her hips and dragged her legs to the middle of the room.” Contrary to that image, Lamia’s legs do not detach from her body. Odd and unnecessary point-of-view shifts happen without warning, often only for a sentence or two, sometimes only from close third person with Michael to third person omniscient, meaning Bear tells instead of showing.
Nestled alongside these awkward passages are descriptions of great beauty and originality, as when Bear describes Lin Pao Tai’s palace, the Snow Faces or Clarkham’s pleasure dome. Many of the physical descriptions in the book are crisp, grounded, and quite lovely.
The connection between the concerto and this world is eventually explained, as is the importance of poetry. The idea that music and words contain power is not new; Bear plays with it somewhat, actually creating a concept that is somewhat confusing, since apparently a Song of Power can be just about anything.
The good news about all of this is that Bear matured as a writer, winning a Nebula in 2000 for Darwin’s Radio. Infinity Concerto gives us an idea of how far he has traveled.