Rhapsody is one of the weirdest VLFN's I've ever read, a fact which works both to its advantage and disadvantage as its sprawling and genuinely epic tale unfolds before you. In her debut, Elizabeth Haydon acquits herself admirably as a writer. While some VLFN authors paint their prose every shade of purple under the sun in an overt attempt to force a sense of grandeur onto the proceedings, Haydon goes for clarity. Whatever flaws this ambitious tale may have — and there are plenty; I'll get to them in a second — Haydon's prose is a pleasure to read. There is the occasional awkward flub (Haydon sometimes writes something like "Rhapsody rose to a stand" instead of simply "Rhapsody stood up") which ought to have been caught by her editor. But, as with any first-time novelist, her storytelling and characterization have some kinks that only time and experience will smooth over.
The story is set in a world inhabited by numerous human and quasi-human races, in which magic finds its purest expression through music. After a nice but inessential love-story prologue that will probably give readers the wrong impression of the book as a bloated Harlequin romance and scare them off in droves, we are introduced to Rhapsody, who is fleeing through her home city of Easton, in the land of Serendair, from some thugs in the employ of a psychotic warlord. Unexpectedly she bumps into an unlikely duo of travelers, the giant Grunthor and the ninja-esque assassin known only as Brother. Brother and Grunthor are themselves fleeing from an even more evil pursuer; after fending off Rhapsody's baddies, they force her to come along as they make their way out of Easton into the surrounding lands.
For you see, Rhapsody is a Singer of the Lirin race, and one of the most powerful kinds of Singers at that: a Namer. When she first meets her two soon-to-be companions, she hastily makes up the name "Achmed" for Brother. Brother, whose true name has been possessed by the demonic entity who now pursues him, now finds himself renamed and free of his bonds. Intent upon learning more about this strange woman's abilities, and suspicious of her nature, he and Grunthor abduct Rhapsody and drag her along on their journey.
Right at the novel's outset we find Haydon's biggest storytelling flaws, and since this is a first novel, it's hardly unexpected. The character of Rhapsody is what's known as a "Mary Sue," and Haydon's establishing of her is wildly inconsistent. When we first see her, she conducts herself almost like some Xena-esque, take-no-shit warrior woman, quick on the draw with a dagger and a snappy insult. And yet almost immediately, Haydon ditches this and Rhapsody becomes a standard issue damsel-in-distress, cowering in fear and confusion as Grunthor and Achmed carry her along with them, occasionally stopping to dispatch enemies with assembly-line precision. It isn't until the novel is well underway that Rhapsody undergoes a transition that settles her into a consistent persona. It takes too long for Haydon to make up her mind exactly who she wants Rhapsody to be.
Rhapsody, Grunthor (who turns out to be a big softie), and Achmed make their way to the base of the enormous, magical tree at the center of a nearby forest. Every forest in Haydon's world has one of these, their roots reaching deep into the bowels of the earth. Fleeing into a cavern deep within the tree's roots, the trio find themselves on a startling odyssey through an incomprehensibly vast network of caves and passages leading to the other side of the world. In one of the book's better passages, Rhapsody uses her musical magic to protect the three of them as they pass through the fires at the earth's core! This transition has profound magical effects on them, of which they are at first unaware.
Emerging at last, they make some alarming discoveries, not the least of which is that a stupefying 1400 years have passed. They are now in the faraway land of Roland. There they learn of the events that transpired in the intervening centuries; that Serendair was abandoned in the wake of a catastrophe, that its inhabitants came to settle this new land, that a great war divided them, and that, today, new and bewildering threats of violence and horror that no one can quite understand are looming. Could these new evils be tied to the same demonic entity that enslaved Achmed back in Serendair?
In its second half, the novel becomes a hit-or-miss quest saga. Our heroes must puzzle out just what sort of evil threatens the land, and where they might be able to locate it and root it out. Scenes of action, violence, and suspense are few and far between. You wish that Haydon would quit beating about the bush and give her plot some focus.
Though you develop an emotional investment in Rhapsody, Grunthor, and Achmed, the characters do lack depth. They're likable and extremely sympathetic, just not substantial. Perhaps the best-developed of the lot is Grunthor, who speaks with a thick, somewhat cockney accent, and yet whom Haydon impressively resists the urge to use as cheap comedy relief. You smile at him and yet continue to believe that he can be very dangerous when he needs to be.
Some readers will be driven crazy by what Haydon does with Rhapsody. Rhapsody emerges from the underground fires magically transformed into a being of indescribable beauty and practically unconditional love. It's eye-rolling; how can anyone suspend disbelief for a character so perfect? Haydon ries to temper it by having Rhapsody utterly ignorant of her transition; to her it seems the most natural thing in the world to, say, adopt abandoned children. But that's one of the defining elements of the Mary Sue character: their only flaws are sympathetic. Mary Sues are never a good idea for an author, especially when they're as over-the-top and obvious as this one. You're opening yourself up to way too much reader mockery, and who's to say you don't deserve it?
So yes, Rhapsody is okay as simple escapism, but I must honestly say that Haydon has a long way to go before her storytelling skills match her easygoing prose. That the novel is pleasant in spite of its shortcomings indicates that, once she irons out the kinks — and outgrows her self-absorption — Haydon could become a fantasist to reckon with.
Followed by Prophecy.