[This review may contain mild spoilers.]
Jane Yolen's son marks his solo writing debut — he's collaborated with his mother on several childrens' titles — with this short and surprisingly grisly urban fantasy. Douglas, nicknamed Doc, is a young guitarist desperately trying to kick a heroin habit. Evidently having not seen Trainspotting, he decides the best place to do this is Scotland. Flying to Edinburgh and moving in with an extremely generous grandmother, Doc sets about making his living as a busker, or street performer. He has a good money-making hook in his ability to improvise a song about whomever is listening to him at the moment, and he seems to be getting his life on track until the day an enigmatic young woman comes to him for a song. He is immediately hypnotized by her presense, but she is deeply offended when he declines her payment and insists his song is a gift. She resents the implicit obligation to give Doc a gift in return, and when he gets it, he's horrified that it's a small vial of white powder.
Despite his determination to stay clean, the horrible hooks of addiction still haven't all been worked loose, and Doc ends up shooting up the stuff. But instead of experiencing the expected endorphin rush, Doc finds that he now possesses the ability to see creatures from the world of faery. Whatever was in that vial, it wasn't smack. All manner of odd beasties — elves, trolls, bogies, etc. — walk the twisty Edinburgh streets, invisible to everybody but Doc. And when they find out he can see them, some are not well pleased. But Doc doesn't find much help amongst regular folks. One priest he runs into tries to drug him unconscious in order to blind him!
Before long Doc finds himself drawn into a battle between two factions of the fey, the People of Peace and the Good Neighbors, neither of whose monikers are remotely appropriate. The going gets rough as the mystery woman — who, as we see coming a mile away, is really an elf queen — reappears and is captured by the mad priest. Doc is forced to rescue her, which sets in motion a cruel chain of events.
Stemple is a professional musician, and so it's no surprise that the parts of the book written most passionately are those describing the fulfillment of creating music. And I liked the use of music in a fantasy context, as a vehicle for spell casting. No, that isn't entirely original, but Stemple's expertise gives his application of the concept authenticity. The other rules of magic in his story are a little less clear, as are some plot points. Yet I have no real criticisms to make of Stemple's writing skills. He composes confident and uncluttered prose, a benefit, one might surmise, of having a fine teacher.
The problem comes when the story goes from dark to darker to darkest in a manner that is borderline nihilistic more than compelling. While I certainly applaud any fantasy writer who wants to think outside the hackneyed "good-vs-evil" box, what you have in Singer of Souls is a book with no moral compass and no characters, including Doc, who are remotely heroic to root for. Doc is certainly sympathetic throughout the book's first two-thirds. There's genuine emotional weight to his battle with heroin. And there are effective scenes with a character named Sandra, a junkie whom he tries to befriend, but cannot risk the backsliding into abuse that close association with her would entail.
But these sympathetic qualities waft away as the story enters its final chapters and everything suddenly turns grotesque, bloody and sickeningly violent in a way that would startle even Terry Goodkind. And while no one wants every fantasy hero to be as stainlessly noble as Frodo, I don't think too many people will find satisfaction in a book with literally no good guys (well, there's one, and she dies horribly), whose protagonist reaches the conclusion at the climax that the only way to defeat his foes is to become even more evil and morally bankrupt than they are. Don't be fooled by the charming Charles Vess cover art; this is a grim fairy tale indeed. Skillfully told, to be sure. But as long as we're dealing with musical analogies here, if Singer of Souls were a song, it would have to be death metal. If that's your cuppa, rock on.