An autumnal quest full of bards, romance, and motherhood? My interest in A Song for the Road was piqued the moment I read the description!
Book: A Song for the Road by Catherine Labadie
Read before: No
Publication date: 10th December 2020
Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by author. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Violence and injury; parental neglect; character death.
I was tempted to read A Song for the Road by a few things; the autumn vibes, the chronically ill heroine, and the promise of a quieter fantasy adventure. I’m a big fan of fantasy that puts its characters and their growth at the forefront of the story, over big action scenes or battles, and this book definitely does that, following asthmatic Larkspur as she takes in a cursed elf child she finds in the woods, and breaks out of the restrictive path her family has set out for her. The two of them will have to travel far and wide to find out how to break Gentian’s curse, while avoiding the elven assassins hellbent on capturing her. It’s a classic fantasy journey given a feminist twist, with its focus on motherhood, healing from neglect, and inner strength.
Larkspur is a very enjoyable heroine. Something of a Cinderella figure, she’s been downtrodden and neglected by her family because of the weakness of her lungs, but what made me instantly like her is that she’s angry about it. You can tell from the off that she isn’t going to lie down and accept the hand she’s been dealt, but it’s not framed as some kind of gentle fairy tale determination to be better, but absolute fury – this felt so realistic to me! It’s expressing this anger to a moon spirit that leads her to Gentian, an injured and mute elf child, and gives Larkspur a way to change her life; one of the most powerful themes of the book is Larkspur refusing to be powerless any more, and looking after Gentian gives her fire a positive direction. She’s a great example of a strong female character: her strength is in her heart and mind, not her body, but it’s no less important for that.
Sometimes I wished Larkspur would chill out a bit and have some awareness of subtlety and intrigue, rather than yelling at everyone until they helped her, but this did feel true to the character! She’s so determined to be independent that it actually gets in her way, which feels just right given her upbringing, and a large part of her journey is learning to accept help and love from others. I really loved Larkspur and Gentian’s relationship – Gentian is, at first, very wary of everyone, but Larkspur doesn’t give up on her, and watching the two of them grow into a mother-daughter relationship was lovely. It’s not saccharine, and doesn’t shy away from the painful ferocity of a mother’s love, which I really appreciated. It’s not just Gentian who she develops a closeness with, though – there’s also a very cute romance with the charming and capable Merrion. Though this is described as a slowburn, it’s fairly clear from the off that they’re meant to be together; the main issues between them are all variations on Larkspur’s hyper-independence making her refuse to be loved, which draws things out rather longer than necessary. That being said, I did like them together, and found him surprisingly swoon-worthy for a dwarf! (I’m not usually a fan of traditional fantasy dwarves, as too often their characters are nothing but bearded men who like drinking, battle, and smithing, but the dwarven society here is as culturally intricate as any other!)
My one issue with the book was its writing style, which is so ornate as to get in the way of the story on many occasions. I haven’t seen so many clauses and asides stacked in each sentence since translating Cicero at university! While the formality of the writing does suit the kind of bardic, fairy tale feel of the story, there were a lot of places where I wanted to get my editing brain on and snip out descriptive phrases that did nothing but bog down the flow of the sentences. The awkwardness of some of the sentences made it hard to get back into the swing of things each time I put the book down – I admit I ended up skimming several paragraphs towards the end of the middle section in order to get to the climax of the book. It definitely feels like a longer read than it is, but if you’re willing to take it slowly, it’s a very rewarding read.
Some pacing issues and stylistic clunkiness aside, this is a fun adventure with a wonderfully fierce female lead. Add some sweet romance, great chronic illness representation, and a surprisingly touching look at motherhood, and this is a read I would recommend to anyone looking for a slightly different take on traditional quest fantasy. Four out of five cats!