Review: The Gift by Alison Croggon (AWW Challenge #2)

The second book of my Australian Women Writers reading challenge is The Gift, by Alison Croggon.

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer, poet and theatre critic. She’s recently been writing a libretto as well, so her association with music and storytelling (such central parts of her world in the First Book of Pellinor) has a strong foundation.

When I tweeted that I was reading the first of the four Books of Pellinor, Alison Croggon replied that she had just been editing out a bunch of adverbs from this book, in preparation for a UK publication.

There are quite a few adverbs in The Gift (known in the US as The Naming), but I didn’t feel as overwhelmed by them as Croggon feared.

The Gift certainly is a Big Fat Fantasy novel, and it follows many of the traditional tropes. It’s about an orphan child who actually comes from noble lineage and who is probably the subject of a great prophecy; her rescue by an older mentor who trains her up her raw magical skills; and a perilous journey to seek the truth before a final confrontation the sends hero and mentor off on a new quest.

But, as they say, there are no new stories. There are, however, new approaches and new voices in which to tell them.

This story feels fresh and lively, and I read half the 462-page book in a single sitting, it flowed so smoothly. Croggon has a light touch with her prose, even with allthose adverbs. The text is often lyrical and never pompous (a tendency which some epic fantasies have).

Croggon’s characters are deftly drawn. Cadvan, the powerful and lonely Bard with a dark past, and Maerad, the slave who is actually a gifted but untrained Bard from a lost but legendary Bardic house, make an ideal foils for one another and the central duo who anchor and pace the novel. Maerad’s progress as she grows into her power and maturity and her interactions with the traumatised child Hem, is another important relationship.

The idea of the Bards is a terrific binding force, too, informing the world’s intricate history as well as its fate. The Bards are more than mere minstrels – they have great powers, including the secrets of a way of communicating with animals and nature called The Speech. Their job is to maintain the balance of the world, to keep the land and its people healthy and bountiful. They can do magic, of course, but the Bards are bound to communities and the sweep of time in greater ways.

Mainly, though, the magic of this book comes from the wonderful detail of the world Croggon has built. The lands of Annar have a rich, complex history and is filled with the texture of landscapes, peoples, cultures and languages.

Croggon even uses the entertaining conceit that this book is the translation of ancient texts of a pre-Ice Age civilisation that have been the subject of much academic study. The end of the book contains notes on the related, complex history of the world and some very convincing footnotes referring to other translations and studies.

I’d put off reading The Gift (after picking it up at Aussiecon 4) in part because it was so thick and I kept feeling like I didn’t have the time to read SO MUCH BOOK. But now I’m immersed in that world, and I can’t wait to get into the next three Books of Pellinor. (Though that may have to wait until I’ve completed more of the AWW Challenge.)

The AWW Reading Challenge: