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Elizabeth Haydon
Tor Books / Victor Gollancz, 480 / 465 pages

Elizabeth Haydon
Elizabeth Haydon is an editor who works in educational publishing. Rhapsody (first in a planned trilogy) was her first novel.

Elizabeth Haydon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Rhapsody
Excerpt: Rhapsody

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Regardless of how one may view this ongoing series -- I, for one, do not count myself among its adherents -- there is little question that Ms. Haydon knows how to write, displaying assurance in her descriptive passages, as well as at times the deft turn of phrase.  Additionally, certain magical sequences, her creation of a spiritual system based upon a blend of telepathy, talismanic conjury, sympathetic magic, clairvoyance and animism bound together around a foundation of music, an inherent vibrational tenor uniting all things, when not in the service of elevating her central characters, and though used before and for similar ends by authors such as Baudino, Attanasio, C.S. Lewis and McKillip, presents the reader with a mythical framework that, at times, is inventively rendered.  One might only wish that the author's admitted strengths were directed to the benefit of a tale less conventional and less bound to indulgent romance.

Reduced to its essentials, this story, as with the previous novel, Rhapsody, is centred around the conventions and sojourns of the quest, as well as an evolving romance, between which the story is pretty well evenly divided.  Picking up immediately where the first novel left off, Prophecy, as its title implies, pursues the threads of prophetic destiny and impending conflict laid down in the first book, resolving some, expanding upon others while adding a few new auguries to the mix.  Ashe's identity is revealed, the hidden threat of the F'dor stretches its shadow across the land, and Rhapsody and her friends find themselves ever more deeply drawn into the plots of those around them, as well as the doom awaiting should they fail.  As is often the case in such scenarios, Rhapsody sets off in order to discover answers to some of the questions that beset her, and in the company of Ashe, who at the outset of the novel remains as much a mystery. 

This sets up much of the narrative action of the first half of the book, a rather rambling and at times tedious sequence of travels common to many quest adventures. Some of the encounters, such as the meeting with the dragon Elynsynos, seem particularly gratuitous to the story's primary narrative thread.  As in many other quest tales of its kind, Rhapsody's travels become in part an excuse to provide a travelogue of wonders that after a time appear repetitive and superfluous, though certainly following in the footsteps of any number of other high fantasy sagas.  Nor does Rhapsody entirely abandon her travelling in the latter half of the book, finding repeated opportunities for brief side trips to Sepulvarta, Yarim and the hills of Orlando.  Unfortunately, after a time, though the terrain may be different, the architecture of the cities and buildings visited begins to become similar, a succession of basilicas and temples with vaulting arches, gleaming domes and immense marble chambers whose floors are inevitably laid with either geometric patterns or centred upon a fountain.  Not only are the journeys beginning to mirror themselves, but so is the narrative description.

More significantly, as in the first novel, the author continues to be hamstrung by her initial characterization of her heroine, as well as by her handling of the increasingly prominent romantic elements to her story.  All of her primary characters are written large: Achmed, the consummate assassin with his ability to locate the heartbeat of any living soul, an ability not entirely lost in the sojourn from Serendair; Grunthor, in his intimacy with the Earth, able to meld himself with stone or refashion it to his will; Ashe, master of elemental water and able to draw upon the powers of a dragon residing within his soul.  And, as all are immortal, despite the occasionally voiced, hollow-sounding complaint, this is an attribute that can only add to their already divine-like stature. 

But, without doubt, the most extravagantly endowed character is Rhapsody herself.  Purified in the first book by her journey through the Root, a process that regained her virginity, Rhapsody is not only a paragon of virtue, selfless, a healer and the rescuer of children, but also "physically perfect, her natural beauty enhanced to supernatural proportions."  Her physical appearance is so spellbinding that:

"men profess their undying love for [her] from little more than a glance.  Even when [she walks] about cloaked and hooded, ox carts run into each other, men stumble into walls, and women stand with their mouths agape."
As can be deduced, no one, man or woman, is immune to her physical attractions: religious leaders, upon seeing her, pause to linger as if looking at an angelic vision, and women known for their own beauty, upon seeing Rhapsody are reduced to stammering, her appearance so exquisite that "it was all [they] could do to keep from bursting into tears at the sight of her."

Rhapsody's overstated beauty, belaboured again and again throughout the novel, serves no intrinsic purpose other than to over-glamorize the book's heroine in a manner whose purpose is baldly obvious, and meant to emphasize her sexual attraction in a way that panders to what some would say are the worst of sexual and social stereotypes.  This intention becomes reinforced elsewhere when, at Rhapsody's advice, the Firbolg develop lingerie as a trading product ("she knew what women felt beautiful in, and in what men wanted to see them"), or the equally stereotypical observation that "she had come to realize men existed in a state of almost permanent arousal, with a few exceptions." And I suspect, regardless of any feminist rhetoric, that this characterization is directed, just as Hollywood and fashion magazines, primarily at a female audience.  As a man I find it, if not offensive, laughable.

The author's handling of her romantic elements and the actual sexual encounters within the novel are little better.  Romanticisms abound: "The scent of her hair was still like morning, as fresh as a meadow after a summer rain."  In itself, as description, rather innocuous, but when combined elsewhere to similar depictions, or sexual episodes similar to that in a tub which rapidly degenerates into a descriptive and watery maelstrom -- while I've heard about the 'sea of love,' a "raging river," "rapids tumbling over themselves," "froth," and "water [roaring] white with the force of their passion" all seem to confound the confines of a bathtub -- in total these flights of romantic fancy become overmuch.  Yet without doubt, my favourite scene comes when Rhapsody affirms her love for Ashe, causing flowers dormant to burst into bloom, with spontaneous fireworks set off above simply by the heat of her voice!  Admittedly not a reader of romance fiction, I wonder whether such a scene plays any better in that genre than it does here?

The portrayal of Rhapsody as a "goddess," along with the author's effusive use of sexual stereotypes and romanticisms associated with what some would call the worst aspects of commercial romance fiction, seriously undermines and distracts from what, in many ways, are the more solidly-written fantasy elements of the story, the novel shifting back and forth from the prophecies and action sequences that support the primary plot of the narrative to become sheer and exaggeratedly romantic indulgence.  As I do believe Ms. Haydon displays some talent in composing her narrative -- the first novel, Rhapsody, considered in terms of basic writing skills represents perhaps one of the better and certainly more popular debuts of high fantasy for 1999 -- it would be nice to see her abilities coupled to a more credible vehicle.  Unfortunately, this novel as well as the overall trilogy is shackled to the author's original depiction of her heroine, and therefore unable to rise above Rhapsody's overwrought, for some offensive, and often ludicrous characterization.  I will wait to see what the author is capable of once this series is abandoned and she has, hopefully, a better vehicle to which to turn her talents.  Even then some effort will need to be expended in order to elevate any future tales above the conventional, which, ignoring the series' other flaws, this narrative essentially remains.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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