Review: The Song that Sings Us by Nicola Davies is a hurtling, breathless eco-thriller
You need to strap yourself in tight for the helter-skelter ride that is Nicola Davies’ latest, a YA eco-thriller on steroids and then some.
It accelerates right from the off and doesn’t dawdle in any of the low gears for pretty much the duration of its 400 pages.
First there’s a snowboard slalom, in the dark and as if that isn’t enough the three siblings at the heart of the story, Harlon and the twins Ash and Xeno are being pursued by metal falcons which thrum through the air like arrows.
Then there’s the threat of an avalanche overwhelming the trio before they reach the rim of the snow:
Harlon is aware of the quiet before they fall. She has time to see the moon setting behind the mountains, the shapes of her brother and sister against the indigo sky, against the dull pearl of the snow.
‘Oh,’ she thinks, ‘we’re going to die.’
And then they drop into snow on the slope beneath the rock face. Harlon thinks of Ma dropping berries into whipped cream one summer day, counting as they made a satisfying plop.
This is just the hurtling, breathless start to their various adventures. They are in a world where nature is not only under threat but under monstrous assault, quite literally in the case of The Monster, a tree-razing machine which voraciously eats up forests.
Then there’s the threat of The Greenhouse, a sort of doomsday device which can make all living cells incinerate within a twenty mile radius. Add to that the merciless Automators, hell bent on becoming invincible and our game and plucky heroes are really up against it. Luckily though right-minded people and nature are fighting back.
There are the Green Thorn rebels who have started to replace the engines of karz with green hearts, pot plants or bunches of flowers. Bricks on building sites have been mysteriously replaced with small trees. There are plans to attack the processing plants which produce the tar that fuels the cities. Nature is reclaiming and undoing the harm done.
Much of this is facilitated by the fact that special beings, known as Listeners can communicate with the natural world and so commune with creatures such as snow terns which ‘fly between the ends of the world, from here, around the White Sea, to Diwedd Pawb, right at the bottom of the world.’
You don’t have to be a crossword nut to see the various ways in which Wales appears in this book, written by a former presenter of ‘The Really Wild Show’ who now lives in Pembrokeshire. There’s a city called Fidrac, found somehwre near Porthmadog and a ghostly woman called the Boogam.
Then there’s the ability to communicate with animals known as Siardw, just a vowel away from siarad, to speak. Then there more overt appearance of the language, such as the mighty Rhinoceros known as Cryf and other animals called Tarth and Blewog.
There’s even a map of a country which bears more than a passing resemblance to Wales, albeit a version which shows how the edge of the ice seems to be in line with somewhere near Holyhead, and to the north of that extends the White Sea, where snow bears roam and mammoths mingle.
There’s Automator Station Gold, a sort of oil refinery, somewhere near Amlwch and a little island called Angellis, which might be Anglesey displaced to where Steep Holm usually sits while England seems to have gone altogether, or been engulfed by the Gulf of Fishes.
This map has been beautifully drawn by Jackie Morris whose art graces many of the books’ pages, while the golden filigree on the cover enlaces with the plot of the book, a nice gleaming touch.
As you’ll have gleaned this is a hyper-imaginative book, bringing to mind the complete works of Philip Pullman with their sprawling cast of animal familiars, Yan Martell’s ‘Life of Pi’ with which it shares a tiger on a boat – although this one has ‘fur like fire and soot, whiskers like strands of white wire, green eyes like the aurora’ – and Richard Powers’ ‘The Understory,’ the last of which similarly celebrates the natural world, finding it more sentient than we thought.
Pulsing through ‘The Song That Sings Us’ is Liorna, the force that runs through all things which is threatened by the Automators who want to dominate nature, use it ‘for the good of all humanity, so prosperity can flow to all.’
While this monumental struggle pits the natural world against rapacious human technology, which eagerly devours forest and wantonly pollutes the seas, there are lots of other fights and skirmishes in a world very much out of kilter. There are adventures on board a ship traversing icy wastes, a dangerous forest to cross and at least one propulsive event on every page. It’s breathless stuff.
And of course, as the title portends, there’s a lot of beautiful singing, not least at the novel’s end. This arrives as a sort of choral epiphany with many of the books characters raising their voices in unison, underlining the sheer connectedness of things and, by dint of this, placing the reader very much at the heart of it all.