Fantasy books and music became inextricably linked in my head one summer in the early 90s. My middle brother gave me his old Walkman, so I could finally listen to music wherever I wanted. My other brother got a job at a nearby bookstore, and brought home piles of Terry Brooks and David Eddings at my request. Walkman+books=happy place for nerdy young Sabaa. To this day, I associate Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots with Druids, Elves, and Murgos (not in that order).
Finding books that pay homage to music is easy. Finding fantasy books that do the same—a bit trickier. But when I do find them—oh, bliss.
The Naming—Alison Croggon
This young adult fantasy novel is the first in a quartet by Australian poet Alison Croggon. The main character, Maerad, is a slave and lyre-player who has grown up almost entirely without friends or family. That changes when she’s discovered by a famous bard named Cadvan. In The Naming, music is deeply connected to magic—and life. Those who practice magic are referred to as bards, and musical storytelling is a valued skill. Croggon sprinkles the book with poems that read like snippets of epic songs. But what I love the most is how much the characters value music—it is as important to them as a family member or a limb. To the wanderer Cadvan, who feels as if he doesn’t truly belong anywhere, it’s more than that, even. When speaking to Maerad about loneliness, he offers this line: “Music is my home.” Four words that perfectly sum up my feelings about music, too. Thanks, Cadvan.
The Name of the Wind—Patrick Rothfuss
If you read fantasy and you haven’t experienced Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, stop reading this and go buy it. The Name of the Wind is the first in that series and it follows the Kvothe, a musician, wizard, and tortured hero. Kvothe is the son of traveling players, and enormously talented in his own right. During a period in the book when he is too poor to afford a lute to play, the reader can genuinely sympathize with how bereft he feels. When he gets it back, it’s like watching a superhero activate his power. You rest a bit easier, because you feel like he can conquer anything. Kvothe lives and breathes music, and of all the loves he has in the book—friends, family, women—this is the one that I found the most powerful. (Tidbit: Vi Hart sang one of Kvothe’s songs as part of a Worldbuilders fundraiser in 2014. You can find it here.)
This fantasy is the first in Anne McCaffrey’s wonderful Harper Hall trilogy. All show a deep appreciation for music, but Dragonsong is my favorite. It follows Menolly, a fisherman’s daughter whose father forbids her from pursuing her interest in music, despite her clear talent. In response, Menolly runs away from home. In Dragonsong, music offers Menolly solace in the most difficult of times. It’s a tool she uses to survive the situations she is thrust into. It is also the device through which she self-actualizes. In the same way that I root for two characters to end up together, I spent most of Dragonsong hoping that Menolly got to continue to be with her one true love forever: her music.
The Wishsong of Shannara—Terry Brooks
In the third book in Terry Brook’s original Shannara trilogy, a young woman, Brin, along with her younger brother Jair, find that they can do remarkable things with their voices. They call their magic the “wishsong” and its presence in their lives leads (gasp) to a quest to save the world. There are no lyrics or songs in this book, nor do the characters ever express a deep love of music, like in the other books on this list. But what I like about Wishsong is that the music IS the magic—and it can be used for good or evil. In a way, the wishsong is reflective of the characters’ personalities. Like the humans who wield it, it can create and heal, destroy and obstruct. The fact that there are two versions of the wishsong—one that can physically change things, and another that’s only an illusion—makes its role in the book even more powerful and fascinating.
Rachel Hartman’s young adult fantasy gets double points because it’s got music and dragons. Seraphina is a court musician in the kingdom of Goredd, where dragons (who can pass as human) have an uneasy alliance with humans. After a murder in the royal family, the dragons are blamed and the kingdom falls into turmoil. Seraphina must try to stop a war—and keep her own secret while doing it. Seraphina’s musical skill is, in great measure, due to her secret, which makes the music in the book a source of both comfort and confusion for her. But still, she has a deep reverence for music. Though she is exposed to it daily, it still has the power to awe her—and that resonated with me. It helps that Hartman has a clear technical understanding of music. Probably because, according to her bio, she “played cello and lip-synched Mozart operas with her sisters.”
Sabaa Tahir grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s eighteen-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash, and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks, and all things nerd. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. Follow her on Twitter @SabaaTahir.