Elizabeth Haydon’s novels are lyrical, literate and captivating, though not as well known as they should be. The Symphony of Ages is written as a history in which the eras of time in the universe are recounted in seven distinct ages. The debut trilogy, Rhapsody, Prophecy and Destiny, and the subsequent sequels, are set at the end of the Fifth Age, the age of Schism, and the beginning of the Sixth Age, the Age of Twilight. A giant tree stands at each of the locations, known as the birthplaces of Time, where the five primordial elements – air, fire, water, earth and ether – first appeared in the world. The oldest of these World Trees is Sagia, which grows on the island of Serendair, the birthplace of ether. It is through the interconnected roots of Sagia that three people, all half-breeds, running from different pursuers, escape the cataclysm that destroys the island and find themselves on the other side of the world sixteen centuries later. So begins an epic, world- and time-spanning tale, which somehow still manages to maintain an intimate focus on the main characters whom we follow through struggle and heartache to their ultimate destiny.
The three companions are initially antagonistic. Rhapsody, a woman of mixed human and Lirin blood, is a Namer, a student of lore and music who has learned the science of manipulating the vibrations that constitute life. She is on the run from an old nemesis, and is grudgingly rescued from his henchmen by two men. The Brother is an irritable and hideously ugly assassin with a bloodgift that makes him able to identify and track the heartbeats of any victim. His only friend, Grunthor, is a giant Firbolg sergeant-major with tusks, an impressive weapons collection and a fondness for singing bawdy marching cadences. The two men are fleeing the demon of elemental fire who has control of the Brother’s true name. Rhapsody accidentally changes the Brother’s name to Achmed the Snake, breaking the control the demon has over him, and making escape possible. The Three make the trek along the roots of the World Trees through the belly of the Earth, passing through the fire at the centre with the help of Rhapsody’s ability to manipulate names. In the process, the distrustful adversaries become grudging friends. Rhapsody chronicles the journey of the Three as they cope with the loss of their world to an enigmatic shape-shifing demon who sows lies and chaos wherever it goes.
In Prophecy, the discovery of a dragon’s claw in the ancient library of Ylorc leads Rhapsody to travel overland with Ashe, a man who hides his face, to find the dragon Elynsynos and return the claw before she destroys the Firbolg in revenge. More of the demon’s plot is uncovered, though its identity remains a mystery. Achmed discovers a child of living earth that slumbers endlessly in the ruins of a colony of Dhracians, tended to by the Grandmother, the only survivor of the colony. He realises that the demon is seeking this Sleeping Child because her rib, made of Living Stone, would form a key like the one with which he opened Sagia – but in the demon’s hand would be used to unlock the Vault of the Underworld and loose the remaining fire demons, who only seek destruction and chaos. Destiny follows the tale to its conclusion, the unmasking of the demon, the battle that ensues and its aftermath. The sequels, Requiem, Elegy and The Assassin King, pick up the story three years later, and show the factors that eventually led to intercontinental war. With each new book, more of the history is laid bare, more of the secrets revealed, and more of the tale told in the style of a musical rhapsody.
Call me old-fashioned but I like my fantasy novels to be, well, fantastic and that’s what I like about The Symphony of Ages. While a lot of fantasy authors pride themselves on the ‘grittiness’ of their work, excluding any references to magic, non-human races or alternate worlds, Haydon positively revels in the sense of ‘otherness’ which so suffuses her novels. Imaginative, original and totally uninhibited, The Symphony of Ages sometimes feels like a delicious assault on the senses. While there are recognisable elements from fantasy, such as dragons, and mythology, for example the World Trees, as a whole Haydon’s work never feels derivative and is all the more refreshing for that, even a decade or so after Rhapsody was first published. The Symphony of Ages certainly won’t be for everyone – as I said, it might be too ‘fantastical’ for many readers who prefer a more down to earth approach to the genre as exemplified by Joe Abercrombie and others – but those who go in for this sort of thing will really love it. Even the most modern of tastes, though, should find Haydon’s storytelling, if nothing else, absorbing – in particular the way that she drip-feeds information with each passing novel, only putting readers fully in the picture at the very end of the series. The occasionally foolish Rhapsody, with her power to literally re-make the world by changing the name and rhythm of things, is one of the most interesting heroines I’ve ever come across and the often boorish Achmed makes an equally appealing foil for her. Definitely a little different from the norm, but definitely worth a look regardless.