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Re-reading ‘Rhapsody’ by Elizabeth Haydon

30 June, 2013

I promised, a few weeks ago, that this year I was going to re-read some of the fantasy novels littering my shelves and blog about them. This was an idea prompted by a) looking at how many books I possess, some of which I haven’t read in years, and b) really wanting to read some of Elizabeth Haydon’s work again. My original copy of ‘Rhapsody’ was lent to a friend and never returned, but completing my collection again decided the matter, and here we are.

[NOTE: ‘Rhapsody’ was first published well over a decade ago, and as this is a re-read rather than a review, I’ve made no effort to avoid spoilers. You have been warned!]

It’s difficult to summarise the plot of ‘Rhapsody’: the back cover blurb focuses not so much on plot, but on the three main characters. It is Rhapsody herself, and her two companions – Achmed and Grunthor – that really form the heart of the book. Their personalities, interactions and histories drive just about everything, from their very first meeting onwards. Achmed and Grunthor are fleeing a demon to which Achmed is in thrall – bonds that Rhapsody accidentally breaks. When the two men continue their flight, Rhapsody is dragged along with them into (quite literally) the centre of their world and out the other side, a journey that changes them irrevocably – and not just because fourteen centuries have passed by the time they emerge.

If this sounds like something of an audacious way to start a novel (here’s a new fantasy world! and now it’s entirely destroyed, we’re on another continent and everything you’ve just learnt is irrelevant!), it gets worse. In what is essentially the prologue to the book, a teenage Rhapsody – then called Emily – meets a young boy who’s been purposefully thrown back in time, supposedly for the simple purpose of meeting her and falling in love. When he then returns to his own time, Emily runs away from home, becomes first a prostitute and then a ‘Singer’ (a musician and student of lore, with magical overtones), and then meets the aforementioned companions with whom she travels through the world…

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Haydon’s entire world-building is similarly labyrinthine – I’m still not entirely sure how much of it I took in. We have ancient races, multiple islands and continents, magic artefacts, world-changing devastation, dozens of named characters and a huge amount of past history to contend with. I wasn’t, on the re-read, always keen on the way Haydon relates much of this world-building, which tends toward ‘sit here and let me tell you a story’ (essentially infodumps, though quite sophisticated ones). However, this colossal backstory is both intricate and intelligent, and frequently informs both the present decisions and more intimate past histories of the main characters.

Ah, and what characters they are. Love them or hate them, Haydon’s characters are complex and always interesting. They’re not without their flaws – Rhapsody’s inability to see her own ‘perfection’ is infuriating for both her companions and the reader, whilst it wasn’t until the very end that I found Jo any more than an annoyance – but it’s quite clear that Haydon knows them inside out. In some ways, everything else is simply a backdrop to their intricate lives and relationships.

My biggest grumble with this book, then, is that Haydon doesn’t apply the same rigorousness that informs her characters and world-building to the plot. From its beginning, it rather meanders, and in its last third it almost entirely falls apart. Achmed’s subjugation of the Firbolg city of Ylorc doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story, as it feels both rushed and rather nonsensical. I never quite understood why Achmed wanted to rule the Bolg. Even more infuriating, Grunthor seems to mostly disappear in the second half of the book, whilst Rhapsody is still being dragged along for the ride – it’s only in the very last few pages that she finds any purpose at all.

Ultimately, I feel ‘Rhapsody’ isn’t a book that can be very well understood on its own. It’s so clearly the first act in a much bigger story that trying to make sense of every bit of set-up and world-building is rather pointless. In this first book, both the villain and the major romance plot are rather sidelined – they only come together later. Whilst that unfortunately makes ‘Rhapsody’ rather slow and direction-less at times, it’s clear there are going to be major pay-offs down the line. I have to admit, too, that I’m rather in awe of the amount of plot that Haydon leaves hanging at the end of the book. There are answers to come, but giving so few here seems incredibly audacious in what was the first book in a series and a début novel.

So, where does my re-read leave me? ‘Rhapsody’ has turned out to be every bit as complex and nuanced as I remembered, but it’s also much easier for me now to see its flaws. That hasn’t really spoilt my enjoyment of the book, though, only made me keen to read on, as I both remember how much more intrigue there is to come, and am aware how much I’ve forgotten and will get to rediscover!

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