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.
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 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 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
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 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).
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
 Having taken to the idea of
, I have neologized
as a form for matriarch/patriarch. I don't know if Spivak
would approve, though. :)