Song of the Beast is a standalone novel by Carol Berg, one of my favorite female authors. It's been out for awhile, but her publisher, Roc, put out a nice trade paperback version a couple of months ago and as that is the only book of Bergs I hadn't read yet, I bought it on one of my most recent trips to Barnes and Noble.
There's a new introduction by Berg in this edition and in it she states that while Song of the Beast is not her first book to be published, it's the first of her writing efforts that she feels to have been a success. And while I loved this book in the way I do all of Berg's works, there's a bit of a trope-ish feel to it. You can definitely tell, if you read her later works, that she's developed immensely as a writer in the intervening years.
So what are the trope-ish elements? Here are the ones that occur to me just now: (1) Dragons, including their subjugation by humans, the fact that they're no longer producing young, etc. (2) Music as magic (we've seen this in Terry Brooks and more recently in Peter Orullian and David Anthony Durham, and I believe L.E. Modesitt, Jr. also had a series where music was an important element to magic, though I haven't read the Modesitt books). (3) Hero (of a noble background) has been in prison unjustly for a long time. (4) Elements of the minstrel's traveling life. (5) Multiple races, one of which has been downtrodden. (6) Hero meets a woman who hates him at first but eventually who falls for him (although they don't live happily ever after in the end, exactly, so that's a bonus, I suppose). (7) The manipulator who won't tell everyone his plans until the end. (8) Destroying a musician's hands to end his livelihood. (9) Masquerade ball.
I know, I know, no book is free of tropes. And I can usually overlook them if I like the story enough, which I did in Song of the Beast. Because in addition to the tropes, all the elements that I commonly see in Berg's books are present here, as well. Especially the long climax scenes where a lot of important action goes on for a number of pages and you just don't want to put the book down. (I've always thought Berg was quite good at writing climax scenes.) You also have a hero (Aidan) who goes through a lot of crap (I'm recalling Seyonne from Berg's Rai-Kirah series, maybe Seri from The Bridge of D'Arnath) but finds some kind of peace and purpose in his life in the end. These guys get beaten down but manage to hang on and end up okay, if not on the path they originally thought their lives would take.
Berg's writing style is a bit different from the last two authors I read (Catherynne M. Valente and Liane Merciel) in that she doesn't use nearly as much figurative language as either of them. (Completely off-topic, but I also don't use much figurative language, and I'm glad to see that I enjoy an author who writes in a similar styleas I do!) Still, her prose does a fine job of conveying the information she wants to get across and I can't find anything in it to nitpick about (which is not always the case, if you read some of my other reviews).
Well, I take that back. There is one thing about the writing style that I had a hard time with. Berg switches back and forth between different viewpoint characters, which is absolutely fine, as no one character was in every scene. But she writes every scene in the first person. There are a few individuals (e.g. Prince Donal) who only get one chapter, and I don't have trouble with that. But Lara (a woman disowned by the Ridemark -- see below -- for trying to ride a dragon) and Aidan (the unjustly-imprisoned musician) both had considerably more chapters. And I would get so used to Aidan's chapters in the first person that I would be thrown for a loop when I was reading Lara's, still thinking about Aidan and being confused by the action as a result. I know I said it was odd in my review of The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer that Schafer switched back and forth between first-person and third-person scenes with Dev and Kiran. But it was much easier to remember who was doing the talking in that case.
There are two main enemies in this book, and I'll talk about the Ridemark first. Perhaps this is a novice mistake, but the people of the Ridemark are just a little too evil for my taste. They control the dragons by force, make them incinerate people. They're fearsome warriors in their own right. They even let women fight. (Though paradoxically, women are treated like crap otherwise -- they never get to ride dragons and they're fair targets for rape from the age of 11 in the twelve tribes of the Ridemark.) They are expert torturers, and they keep hostages in squalid conditions (and don't care much for the hostages' well-being, even if they don't intend to kill the poor souls).
The other enemy starts out as a friend, or so we think -- he's Narim, an Elhim. The Elhim are a curiosity as a race; they only have one gender, but are commonly referred to as "he." (Apparently they engage in asexual reproduction, is what I glean from the text.) They're also extraordinarily long-lived, and Narim spends the novel manipulating people into correcting a mistake he made in his youth. He drugged the dragons to bring them under his influence, but the people who became the Ridemark stole control of the dragons from him and the Elhim have gotten the brunt of a lot of bad treatment -- from many segments of society -- in the intervening five hundred or so years. Narim's motivations are always suspect, although at first it's hard to believe he's up to anything. Actually, his development from a friend/Good Samaritan to a bad guy is quite well done, and progresses at an appropriate pace over the course of the novel. We later learn he's been a manipulator all along, but it's not necessarily easy to see this, starting out. Narim actually wants Aidan to free the dragons so he (Narim) can enslave them again, and make the humans pay for five centuries of bad treatment. Which is actually an understandable goal, though perhaps not what the reader wants to happen. So Narim is a good villain, actually (in the sense of story construction).
I'm not actually sure what else to say here. This seems sort of short compared to my other reviews. Although looking at it in "preview" mode, it's nine paragraphs, and that's much longer than any of the Amazon postings masquerading as "reviews" (some of them, especially the ones that give fewer stars, do have some decent analysis). If you've read and enjoyed Berg's other work, you'll enjoy Song of the Beast. I'd probably start with one of her series and then come back to this one, though. It's a good book, I read it in less than a day, I cared about the characters, I thought the climax scene was excellent, etc., but she hadn't developed to her full potential when she produced Beast. It's an interesting exercise to read Berg's later works (and I've read them ALL) and then see where she started, how she changes as an author, etc. Overall, though, I'd recommend this one. (Especially if you're looking for a standalone!)