A novel by Orson Scott Card, written circa 1980. Portions had been previously published in the science fiction magazine Analog.

This is without a doubt my favorite novel of all time. The writing really tugs at the heartstrings. There are various parts of it which make me cry everytime I read it, especially the last three or four pages. I once read the entire novel onto audio tape so that my friend Marlene could experience it; while it probably took five or six weeks to do it all, those last pages took me two days to get through. It saddens me that Ender's Game is his most well-known work; while a good novel in itself, and its popularity not too surprising because of the "action" element, Songmaster is definitely his crowning achievement, and hopefully the obra for which he will be remembered down through the ages.

All you Ender fans don't agree? Tough! I'm right :)

While Mr. Card is famed in the world of science fiction, though his works are hardly limited to that genre, this book is *not* science fiction at all, notwithstanding the presence of a few spaceships and other hallmarks of SF. You will, however, find it in the science fiction section of your library or bookstore.

There are plenty of spoilers in what follows; if you don't want to know too much, stop now (and go buy the book!). Despite these leaks, there is a whole lot that I don't give away.

Background

The only part of the fictional universe unique to the story is the Songhouse. This is an institution something like a cross between a boarding school and a monastery: located on a huge estate, centered in a large stone building where students live and train, under the guardianship and tutelage of a hierarchy of teachers, who themselves had been the best of the best in their day as students in the Songhouse.

The Songhouse finds children from all over with great musical aptitude and adopts them, at a very young age, so that they can be trained over years to become Singers, vocal adepts beyond anything that we conceive of as singers. In addition to absolute command of tone and pitch -- one of the skills that needs to be mastered before advancing out of Stalls and Chambers is to sing in a room so that each person can hear the song as though you were right next to him, while not allowing the sound to echo off of the walls and get distorted -- they also are able to involve the listener at an emotional level, perhaps with words, perhaps not.

When judged proficient, a child is placed in the household of a client (for which the Songhouse garners a large fee), where eir job is simply to sing for eir patron and eir guests. In the vast expanse of humanity, the relatively rare Singers are highly prized, and great prestige attends a house that obtains one. Though presumably much of mankind has never heard one in person, the extraordinary beauty of their Song is famed in all corners of civilization, and has made the Songhouse one of the oldest and wealthiest institutions in existence.

The Singer's service to eir patron ends when e reaches puberty; e then returns to the Songhouse where e might eventually become a teacher of new children. Some of these teachers are elevated to the rank of Songmaster. It is one of these Songmasters that is the etriarch[1] of the Songhouse, the Songmaster in the High Room.

Rarely, a child is such a prodigy, musically and empathically, even relative to the virtuosos around em, that e is groomed to become a Songbird. These singers are so prized that the Songhouse does not place them with anyone who wants (and can pay for) them, but rather seeks out what they consider to be the perfect match for em -- the one person that the Songbird would touch most deeply. If that person is wealthy, e will pay a handsome fortune for the privilege of having a Songbird; if not, the fee is reduced in whatever degree necessary, even to zero. Indeed, if the patron cannot afford even to have the Songbird in eir house, the Songhouse will provide for the sustenance of the Songbird. It is accepted as axiomatic by all that a Songbird will never be placed with a person not judged worthy by the Songhouse; that no amount of money or power will suffice a person to obtain a Songbird just because e wants one.

The Story

The Songhouse

The story opens as Mikal, the first man to unite all mankind and now the first emperor of the galaxy, appears at the Songhouse asking for a Songbird.

While Mikal is regarded as a just ruler, he is known to be capable of extreme ruthlessness and brutality when he feels it necessary; the unification of the galaxy was far from blood-free. Clearly he does not deserve a Songbird, yet, when his persistence with the lower levels of the Songhouse bureaucracy gets him an audience with Nniv, the Songmaster in the High Room, Nniv's face-to-face appraisal of Mikal convinces him that the Emperor should, in fact, have a Songbird.

You have damaged us, says Nniv;
because we will give you a Songbird,
and the galaxy will not understand why.
As Nniv points out to Mikal, however, there is a problem. Normally the Songhouse seeks out the appropriate patron when they have a Songbird; it is unprecedented that they now have a patron, and have to wait for his Songbird to appear. Mikal will have to wait -- perhaps forever.

Seventy years pass before Ansset is brought to the Songhouse as a three-year-old, in the newest batch of potential Singers.

Ansset's first night in the Songhouse. A five-year-old girl, Rruk, takes him under her wing. He tries to shrug her off; she sings him The Love Song. The next day, in his first lesson with the rest of the new class, he sings the love song to the teacher, Cull; he is overwhelmed by the impossible perfection of it and loses Control.

Control was a vital component in the Songhouse's art. It meant absolute control over one's emotions, never letting them rule the Singer, but rather letting them out only as part of the singing. The children in the class did not know of the shame consonant with the teacher's loss of Control.

The teacher was being rebuked by Songmaster Esste. It was scarcely believable that a teacher could lose Control while with a class of new children. The teacher's protests that the child was exceptional, possibly a potential Songbird, were incredulous, but so was the whole situation. Esste went to meet Ansset, and was astounded. For many years, she had been on the lookout for Mikal's Songbird -- could this be the one? She couldn't let herself hope so. Rescinding Cull's punishment, she took his place as the teacher of the new class. Shortly, Ansset was promoted from Groan to Bell; he found that Esste was suddenly the teacher of that class of Bells. It was lost on nobody that Esste was not teaching the class, she was teaching Ansset. Nothing took priority over that task, not even her new duties when Nniv died and she was named the new Songmaster in the High Room.

But while his skills grew by impossible leaps and bounds, she was worried. Ansset had Control far beyond his years; perhaps too much, she thought. He was so able to sing exactly as the listener wanted that there was nothing of himself in the song. Esste was worried that he was more machine than human. She was certain that he could be the perfect Songbird for the Emperor, but she would not let him go without hearing a song from him.

Word came one day that Riktors Ashen, one of Mikal's right hand men, would arrive in three weeks to take the Songbird to the Emperor, and there could be no argument. Running out of time, Esste brought Ansset to the High Room and locked them both into it. She began a war of wills that she had to win before Riktors' arrival.

This is the only part of the book that I find
really unpleasant. The battle between Esste and
Ansset goes on for days, they are hurting each
other terribly: Ansset hurting Esste because he
doesn't even understand why this is happening, and
sings to her, songs that have a devastating, but
unknowable to him, impact on her; Esste hurting
Ansset by not saying a word to him; both fearing
that loss of Control is imminent.

But when Riktors arrives, Esste hands over to him a happy young Songbird, who leaves to meet his destiny (ominous organ music here).

Mikal

Ansset meets the Emperor of the Galaxy; talking with him, and "learning his songs", he quickly comes to love him. Unlike anyone else, he can see the man inside the man inside the emperor, as did Nniv when he saw that Mikal should have a Songbird.

And Mikal comes to love the boy that knows him so well. As Mikal, and his coterie, knows very well, an emperor who loves is an emperor who can be hurt by his enemies, and he thought he had done well to avoid such trappings for so long. They all think that Ansset has to be closely guarded, to avoid the possibility of his being kidnapped and Mikal's judgement compromised. The only problem is, Ansset refuses to live that way, saying that he would lose all of his songs, and Mikal gives in. Eventually, that thing that everyone feared did in fact come to be, and Mikal raged at all around him, devoting himself to finding Ansset. When he is finally found, the paranoid security types insist on knowing everything that happened to him while he was gone, being fearful that he might have been brainwashed and turned into an unknowing tool of assassination. Probing his mind, they find themselves unable to discover his experiences, because of a previous hypnotic block that they are unable to break through. Ansset apparently knows nothing about it, except that when during hypnotic interrogation he is asked who placed the block there, he answers (take the organ music up a step here), "Esste".

Finally, Mikal tires of this, insisting that Ansset be restored to him over the protests of his advisers. When it seems that all is back to normal, an attempt is made on his life by representatives of a small ex-nation chafing under his rule during an audience. Mikal's guards gun down most of them, but the others are mere feet away from the emperor when, in a matter of seconds, Ansset springs into action and dispatches them with his bare hands.

While everyone is in shock, Ansset is hustled away, being more than ever an unknown quantity. For days, Ansset is grilled, but they are still unable to find how he came to get this lethal training, though obviously it had to have been related to his disappearance. His interrogators tell him that they are failing because of a great resistance he displays when under hypnosis. Because of his love for Mikal, Ansset agrees to relinquish his Control (though the interrogators don't know what that means), and the whole story comes pouring out of a sobbing and tortured little boy: the story of how he was indeed trained to be an assassin. Using the knowledge they get from him, the group responsible is located and accidentally wiped out.

Some parties are still leery of letting Ansset resume his intimate position near Mikal, but he insists that Ansset is not only not to be treated as suspicious, but in fact has shown himself to be an excellent bodyguard.

But.... (add a subharmonic to the organ) later it turns out that the man behind the whole scheme was none other than Riktors Ashen, in an attempt to gain the throne for himself. When he activates Ansset's equivalent of The Queen of Diamonds, Ansset is able to resist the compulsion to kill Mikal, greatly injuring himself in the process. Having Ansset attended to, Mikal informs Riktors and witnesses that he had been waiting for someone with sufficient ambition to be emperor as to attempt to overthrow him, and announces that he will abdicate in favor of Riktors.

Riktors Imperator

So Riktors is the Emperor, and Mikal retires to a secluded life with Ansset at his side. A year later, Riktors' men appear at the door to kill him, which he had been expecting. (Apparently this is what emperors do.) Just before they gun him down, while Ansset is insisting that he can kill all of them, he makes Ansset promise not to because that would destroy the Songbird.

With Mikal dead, Ansset is returned to Riktors, who assumes that he would be a Songbird to him now. Ansset tells him that he had been Mikal's Songbird, not the emperor's, and he must be returned to the Songhouse now. Riktors is displeased, and shows Ansset a letter from Esste saying that he cannot come back. Since the Songhouse won't have him back, and he refuses to sing for Riktors, he is sent away and given a mundane job in government.

It's not really explained how he gets that letter,
and neither the reader nor Ansset understands why
she would ban him.

Intermezzo

I'm not going to spoil the whole story for you. I'm going to skip a good quarter of the book, which ends with an amazing scene between Riktors and Ansset, and ends up with Ansset being crowned as Riktors' successor. You know it's not your usual story when a sentence like this suffices to describe Ansset's life as Emperor of the Galaxy:

So Ansset was crowned and reigned for 60 years.

Homecoming

An old man now, Ansset is still deeply hurt by the fact that he was never allowed to return to the Songhouse. Having been a Songbird as a child was the most important part of his life to him, fame and Empire and coups notwithstanding; he decides he is going to return regardless. Passing the crown to another, he gives up everything and shows up at the door of the Songhouse. I'm not going to tell you what happens there; the story goes on for several months after that, and culminates in a way that few would predict, but is so moving, I'm crying even now thinking of it. I think violins would be more appropriate here.


[1] Having taken to the idea of non-gender-specific pronouns, I have neologized etriach as a form for matriarch/patriarch. I don't know if Spivak would approve, though. :)

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