Greg Bear is known for his science fiction, despite the fact that his first two published books were fantasies — Blood Music and The Infinity Concerto, which is the first part of Songs of Earth and Power. The second part The Serpent Mage was originally published a number of years after Concerto. Bear has revised them to stand as one novel, and quite a novel it is.
The protagonist is Michael Perrin, first met at age sixteen as he sleeps through a visitation by a group of spectral figures who seem to have something in mind for his future. Michael had been befriended by Arno Waltiri, an acquaintance of his parents’ and a composer of movie scores who had, in the 1930s, written a work that caused immense scandal, a piano concerto, Opus 45 – the “Infinity Concerto”. This was done at the urging of a shadowy, mysterious figure named David Clarkham. Waltiri has given Michael a key and instructions to visit Clarkham’s deserted house, also in their neighborhood. Michael takes the key and follows the instructions, and finds himself in Sidhedark, entering through a duplicate of the house under the protection of Lamia, an immense woman, servant of the Sidhe and/or the Isomage, whose identity is more than mysterious, who directs him to the village of Euterpe. The village is where the humans live, in this Realm ruled by the Sidhe: they lost a war and their village, and Halftown, where the Breeds live, are set in the Pact lands in the middle of the Blasted Plain. Most of the humans came to Sidhedark through the agency of music, which sets up some interesting encounters in the second book. Within a very few days, he is directed by Lamia to go to Halftown, where he is to be instructed by the Crane Sisters. They are abrupt, strict, and uncommunicative; Michael never knows what the lesson is, or whether he has learned it. Michael is a pawn, and is being trained for a specific purpose; he doesn’t know whose pawn he is, or what the purpose is, and neither do we.
He learns his lessons, at least well enough to serve, and also develops a streak of independence. He does return to Earth – in the Realm, he has been gone for a few months. On EDrth it has been five years; his reappearance is complicated by the fact that he is unwilling to make a full explanation to anyone, even his parents – in fact, for reasons known only to herself, his mother doesn’t really want to hear it.
The second book, “The Serpent Mage,” hinges on the histories and motivations of the four mages; there is a mage for each of the four races that fought the first War: the Sidhe; humans (the Serpent Mage); the Spryggla, who became sea mammals; and the Cledar, who became birds. (We have already met the mage of the Cledar, who was part of the composer Waltiri.) It is in this book that Michael begins to exercise the prerogatives of an adult, and to take independent action.
This is a very complex, involved story, with many layers. On one level, Bear has kicked the “coming-of-age story” up a couple orders of magnitude. Michael, as a character who in earth time is still nearly a child, but in time lived is certainly a man, faces the necessity of making choices, first on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever, then in the light of the long, long history of the Realms and the reality that he learns from the Serpent Mage and Tonn, the mage of the Sidhe. He makes mistakes, and regrets them bitterly, as part of his growing up, but realizes, finally, that he must act, because he has the power to, and that he must trust his own judgment and compassion to make the right decisions, rather than surrendering the decisions to others. Michael learns from the Serpent Mage one thing that I think sums up the book admirably: with all the conflict, horror, cruelty, and despair that we have created, we have also created honor, justice, and beauty.
There is something very elusive (or perhaps I mean “illusive”) about Bear’s fantasies. I remember from Blood Music the same sense of unreality of a kind than many authors, I think, try for, and few achieve. This is not a book for the action lover; it is a book that has its own rhythms and its own speed. It is a thoughtful book, and while conceptually vivid, the adventure is one of maturation. In Bear’s hands this is a fascinating story: I normally have a low patience level with tales in which the hero doesn’t know what’s going on; Bear held my interest through all 689 pages.
(Tor Books, 1996)