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Alison Croggon's work is not particularly well known in the UK, unjustly, in my opinion. This is the novel that first introduced me to fantasy, and is one of my favourite's in the genre.
The story begins a remote mountain settlement in Edil Amarandh, where Maerad has lived almost all of her life, seemingly just an ordinary serving girl, until the day when a stranger appears, a stranger only she can see. This stranger is Cadvan of Lirigon, a bard, which is the equivalent of this world's magicians. Like their historical namesakes, bards place a great emphasis on music, but also on magic, and the rhythms of the natural world. Cadvan realises that Maerad must have the bardic gift as well, and takes her with him on his journeys. However, as they travel to a place of safety, they are pursued by creatures of the dark, which are ever on the increase. For the Nameless One, once a bard of great dark power, is rising again, and seeks to crush Edil Amarandh beneath him. When Maerad's true heritage is discovered, as the last bard of the noble house of Pellinor, Cadvan begins to suspect that she may have a more important role to play in the coming conflict, and the purpose of their journey changes; instead of getting to safety, they must now search for the knowledge that may save the world. But this is no easy task, when not everyone is willing to believe in the danger, and corruption has crept to the very heart of the Light. And with Cadvan hiding dark secrets of his own, can Maerad even trust him?
I really loved the depth and complexity of this story. It is true that there are large stretches of travelling where not an awful lot happens, but these are used to good advantage to explore the characters in more detail; indeed, these scenes are some of the most revealing when it comes to Maerad and Cadvan's characters. Despite this, there are still enough action scenes to move the plot along steadily. The depth of the characters in stunning, and attention is lavished on even the most minor characters, so that a vividly realistic world is built. No character is two-dimensional; they each have their good points and bad points, though some are more appealing than others! The landscape descriptions are also stunningly detailed; I know some readers might find this irritating, but I personally enjoy long and detailed books, as long as stuff is happening at the same time, and so this was perfect for me. To add even more realism and detail to the world of Edil-Amarandh, the book comes with beautiful maps throughout, and a brief history and notes on culture at the back. These don't add anything to the story, so there is no obligation to read them, but they add another dimension to the world. The ending was a massive surprise and cliffhanger, and left me desperate for the next one in the series. Overall, I have read this book many, many times, and it never fails to thrill me, despite my familiarity with it!
The Gift is the first book in Alison Croggon's Pellinor series, which begins with The Gift and ends with The Singing. This tetralogy (or quartet, as Croggon herself refers to the books), is aimed at young adults, and is a very descriptive account of the adventures of a young girl called Maerad. The story takes place in the world of Edil-Amarandh, and the books are based on 'The Riddle of the Treesong', or 'Naraudh Lar-Chanë' in Annaren, the language spoken in Annar, which is a region in Edil-Amarandh.
Alison Croggon was born in the Transvaal in South Africa, and her parents moved to England before settling down in Australia when Alison was seven years old. Alison was a poet and playwright before she became a fantasy author, publishing The Gift in 2003. On her website (see below) you can find more information about the books and the author, as well as some short reviews and an essay on 'The reality of fantasy'. As I have mentioned, Croggon was an acclaimed poet before she began to write fantasy books, and has published seven poetry collections. This also shows in the Pellinor books, as each chapter begins with a short poem. I must admit that I skip these myself, but it's an added bonus if you're into that kind of thing. Croggon's fantasy writing career is as successful as her poetry writings, and The Gift was names one of the Notable Books of 2003 by Australia's Children's Book Council. Alison also keeps a blog about the world of Pellinor, where she keeps her readers informed of any news. http://www.alisoncroggon.com
The Gift is part of a quartet about a girl called Maerad.
Maerad has grown up as a slave in Gilman's Cot, and is recognised as a Bard by Cadvan, as Maerad is the only one who can see him in Gilman's Cot. In The Gift, Maerad and Cadvan travel towards Norloch to instate Maerad as a full Bard, as Cadvan believes that Maerad is important in the ongoing struggle against the Dark force of the Nameless One.
One of the main concepts which needs to be understood is the idea of 'Barding'. In brief, a Bard is a person born with the ability known as the 'Gift'. These people naturally acquire a magical language known as the Speech, which is understood by all living beings and which can be learnt by ordinary human beings to communicate. Bards have differing strengths of power, and all Bards live according to the Balance serve the cause of the Light. Bards can go in three directions: Reading, Tending, or Making.
Without giving away all the good bits, here's a summary of the story:
The Gift (also known as 'The Naming' in the US) is about Maerad, who has been a slave in 'Gilman's Cot' since she was little. Her mother and herself were brought there together, but her mother died a few years before the story starts. One day, when she is milking the cows, she sees a man who appears to be hurt somehow. This man, Cadvan, is astounded by the fact that Maerad can see him, and he believes that Maerad is a great 'Bard', a Bard being a magical being who has 'The Gift'. After finding out that Maerad may be the only survivor of the house of Pellinor, Cadvan believes his meeting with Maerad is destiny and decides to help her to escape from Gilman's Cot. However, their journey is a dangerous one, and it becomes clear that Cadvan would not have reached his destination without Maerad.
As they travel on together, Cadvan begins to suspect that Maerad's Gift is an unusual and very powerful one, which he believes carries some significance for the future of 'The Light'. He takes Maerad to the School of Innail, where she learns more about the struggle in which her father and her little brother were killed and in which she and her mother were captured. Maerad also learns about The Nameless One, who gave up part of his identity to become immortal. She begins to understand that this new world she is discovering is being threatened by a dark force. Cadvan, who is convinced that finding Maerad was an important event in the struggle against the dark, and the pair embark on their travels to the city of Norloch, where Cadvan hopes to instate Maerad as a full Bard. Their journey is a difficult one, and the further they travel, the more they become aware of the spreading influence of the Nameless One. Will they make it to Norloch in time or will the Dark forces be waiting for them?
WHAT I THINK
This book, and in fact the entire series, is very detailed and intricate in its descriptions of the world, the characters and the context in which it is set. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, although it took all my effort not to skip anything, as there are long paragraphs where emotions, surroundings or legends are described in detail. There are also poems at the start of the chapters and 'Bard songs' which are written out in full in the text, which I must admit I have skipped over at times. However, all these things add to the sense of authenticity you get when you read this book, as do the appendices at the end of the book, which offer even more information about the world of Edil-Amarandh.
The plot of this book is easy to follow, and whenever you are left with questions at the end of a chapter, this is clearly done deliberately, as it adds to the pace of the story. This is a book which I would describe as valuable, because it's not one of those books you read all in one go, but rather one you want to read chapter by chapter over a few weeks. The author cites the Lord of the Rings as her inspiration (dating back to when she was ten years old), and there are definitely elements in there which remind the reader of the Lord of the Rings style. But don't worry, at no point in this book is there a 50 page long description of a meadow!
What's great about these books is the fact that they mix fantasy and travel, and give it a historical feel. This genre probably won't appeal to everyone, and I actually think adults will appreciate it more than teenagers. If you like to travel and have always wanted to see more of the world, you will love this book, because the descriptive detail is brilliant, and it will remind you of places you've seen and places you would love to visit some day.
Each of the characters in this story is developed to the point where you feel like they are your long lost friends. Their personalities, though complicated, develop throughout the journey, and it is easy to visualise even the minor characters. Croggon's talent lies in giving the reader a snap-shot of each character and then gradually developing the way in which she portrays them. The book is written in the third person from Maerad's point of view, meaning that the reader learns about the world of Edil-Amarandh and about Barding while she does.
These books are not well-known yet, so be the first person to tell your friends about them!