Number of Reviews: 3
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Hodgepodge of ideas, but likeable result., April 17, 2010
Since I don't share Dan Shiovitz's dismay over beholders, I thought I'd give Sparrow's Song a try. Having never experienced the work of J. D. Berry before, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this piece, which was entered into Emily Short's SmoochieComp in 2001.
Although the presence of the beholder implies the story is grounded in the universe of Dungeons & Dragons, nothing else does. While it was interesting to see what Berry thinks the personality of one of these iconic monsters is, there was no compelling reason I discovered that the being in question had to be a beholder. For story purposes, it could just as easily have been a demon, or even a grizzled old veteran. It's a rare and unexpected failure of originality in this otherwise highly creative work.
The writing often has a certain poetic and lyrical quality to it that I found compelling, though on occasion the similes were a bit forced. The author has a way of adeptly conjuring huge swaths of history and exposition by sending your imagination soaring along suggested lines. The universe feels more complete by virtue of what you imagine being unchallenged by the text, which actually provides very little information about the world the protagonist inhabits.
When I first finished Sparrow's Song, I was a little confused. It seemed like much of what was implemented in the first half of the story had no relevance to either the central plot or the theme. For a while, I speculated that maybe this was a partially-finished work that had been adapted for entry into SmoochieComp by grafting on a storyline about love. However, on further reflection, I decided that this may not be the case(Spoiler - click to show): Each NPC you meet presents an exploration of love in some form: dead love, love of mankind, simple fidelity, pure lust, etc. Not a very deep exploration, it's true, but I'm willing to give Berry the benefit of the doubt.
One intriguing aspect of the story is the way it ends.(Spoiler - click to show) Having met your apparent soul mate, you discover that she is a different species and you are not biologically compatible. There are three possible solutions to this: either you change to her species, you change her to yours, or you meet half way. Each option is available, but the significance of the choice is not explored, though each would likely have serious consequences in the protagonist's universe.
This work leaves some key questions unresolved. As Emily Short notes, the nature of the love that forms the foundation of the story arc is strangely anvil-like, to say the least.(Spoiler - click to show) Personally, I thought it was strongly hinted that it was an unnatural, magic-induced kind of supercharm -- we know charms exist because of interaction with the nymph, that Tamta has been studying magic, at least one of Tamta's responses (I thought it was to "magic!", but I can't seem to recreate it now) has her explaining that she'd hoped to "set love in motion" using magic, and in another she admits to summoning the titular sparrow. In addition, Tamta has clearly been aware of you for some time, and it seems from the locket that your sister, a powerful magician, had a hand in your destiny here. I would imagine that much of the reader's opinion about the overall story would be shaped by the particular conversational topics they'd come across -- pretty good use of the medium, in my mind.(Spoiler - click to show) Another glaring question: What's up with the combinatorial explosion as a manipulable object? Amusing as the concept is, it doesn't fit the rest of the style and has no apparent purpose in this work. Maybe it should have been saved for another setting?
The conversation warrants a brief note. Opinions about it seem to be mixed, but I, for one, found the liberation from having to type "ask person about" in front of every topic to be quite welcome. Other than that, there is little functional difference between this model and the standard ask/tell. Although at least one reply seemed to indicate the system was designed to allow the spread of knowledge about topics between NPCs via talking to them about it, I did not spot any differences in behavior as a result.
I would definitely recommend trying this piece, though first-timers may be frustrated by the attention to detail necessary to get past the primary obstacle.(Spoiler - click to show) Hint: Mantras are for repeating.