Visualization comes easy to me as I read. When epic fantasy and sci-fi are your chosen genres, it comes with the territory. Authors excel at doling out impressive wordscapes that translate in my head as vivid images and stunning scenes. Books become movies in the theater of my mind, and all that’s missing is the music.
Earlier this year, Brandee offered up some book-melody pairings in her Soundtracking A Story piece. Inspired by the approach, I started to take notes whenever a book and a song paired perfectly in my head. Whereas visualization comes packaged with a book for me, the soundscapes backing a story don’t always come so easily. When a song strikes you as an ideal fit for a scene, it sticks out. Here’s a smattering of songs that soundtracked the stories I read this year.
The Wise Man’s Fear & “Poet, Soldier, King” by The Oh Hellos
“Poet, Soldier, King” opens with a bouncy, plucked melody backed by a soft drum on each count. It’s the sort of intro you might expect from a bard hired to entertain off-duty soldiers and local laborers. The lyric begins without much fanfare, and each verse describes a different facet of a prophesied being.
“There will come a soldier who carries a mighty sword. He will tear your city down…”
“There will come a poet whose weapon is his word. He will slay you with his tongue…”
“There will come a ruler whose brow is laid in thorn. Smeared with oil like David’s boy…”
Then, a refrain that concludes each verse: “Oh lei oh lai oh lord…”
The lilting melody gives way to a hearty strumming rhythm that mirrors the feel of the song’s first half, but gives it a burst of new life. The song explodes into a revelation, repeating the “Oh lei oh lai…” chant until it eventually reaches a climactic syncopated end.
What better song to pin to Kvothe? The Wise Man’s Fear (and of course The Name of the Wind before it) tells of a hero who soaks up the world around him, forced to live a solitary life after the terrible death of his family and the destruction of his nomadic home. Kvothe, once just an Edema Ruh, becomes a powerful spellcaster, an artificer, a bard, a student, and a warrior.
The Oh Hellos herald the coming of a mysterious, exaggerated someone. And those who’ve read the two Kingkiller Chronicle books know exactly who that someone is.
Oh, and the forgotten final verse of the song: “There will come a third book when the author’s finally done. Everyone will hate it though, oh lei oh lai oh LORD.”
Under the Whispering Door & “And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat, And Tears
Here’s a doozy. Open with a harmonica solo that gives way to a jaunty carnival-esque backing track. Enter the vocal, jovially explaining “And when I die, and when I’m dead and gone, there’ll be one child born in the world to carry on.”
Laura Nyro’s original “And When I Die” offers a subdued take on the same message, but the Blood, Sweat, And Tears rendition truly captures the offputting juxtaposition of the lyrics and music. The reality of death pinned against a bubbly, horn-laden track and interlaced with a harpsichord solo leads to a confusing auditory package. And in a way, isn’t that exactly how grappling with death should feel?
TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door sees a grade-a douchebag lawyer Wallace Price dealing with his own demise. Forced to accept his death, Wallace reflects on his life, slowly coming around to the idea that he wasn’t exactly everybody’s favorite guy.
But Wallace’s story is a hopeful one, and that’s as much as I can say without spoiling the book. That’s why this Blood, Sweat, And Tears tune jibes so well with Klune’s work. The song proposes dealing with death in a healthy way, which involves accepting the grief it brings and embracing the sadness.
“And When I Die” puts a hopeful spin on the idea. Someone will carry on, even when I’m gone. Perhaps the song, like Whispering Door, is a plea to live a life that is worth carrying on.
Mistborn & “Kicks” by Lights
“I don’t really know what I’m headed for. I got a lot of problems I ain’t lookin’ for more. I just wanna cruise, I just wanna cruise the wild with you.”
Talk about a vibe. “Kicks” has a vibrant, driving melody that makes you feel like you’re careening down a desert highway with the top down. This song’s sonic palette effortlessly evokes the feeling Vin gets when she first soars through the mists with Kelsier.
“‘Cause not all who wander are looking for the exits; sometimes a diamond is rough around the edges.”
Vin learns the proverbial ropes as an allomancer with Kelsier’s steady hand guiding her through the mists above Luthadel. Up there, she feels carefree. Nothing matters but the thrill of near-flight, the rush of falling toward the ground, slowing herself with an allomantic push.
In my mind’s eye, any Mistborn movie worth its salt would play this song the first time Vin flies unaided over the cityscape below. Perhaps it’s too modern a tune for a medieval-ish story. I’m just concerned with the feel, and this feels just right.
A Psalm For The Wild-Built & “Mr. Blue” by Catherine Feeny
This might be a hard sell, if only because Bojack Horseman deployed Catherine Feeny’s “Mr. Blue” to devastating effect in the series finale. In Bojack, “Mr. Blue” is an ending, a bittersweet goodbye to the relationships that shaped us, but that can’t do so anymore.
A Psalm For The Wild-Built captures the more hopeful side of Feeny’s melody and longing lyrics. “Mr. Blue, I told you that I love you…please believe me.” The singer pines for understanding. “I have to go now, darling, don’t be angry.” Here, an exit brings hope for the person leaving and grief for the ones she’s leaving behind.
“Mr. Blue” explores the well of emotion that comes when one story ends and another must begin. In Becky Chambers’ charming novella, Sibling Dex feels the pang of an ending, unsure of their future. The Monk feels beaten down and unsatisfied at their desk job:
“I know that you’re tired. I know that sore and sick and sad for some reason.
So I’ll leave you with a smile, kiss you on the cheek and you will call it treason.”
Dex decides they will leave the job to travel the world in a tea cart, visiting with people, talking through their problems, and generally saying goodbye to the predetermined path along which everyone else so happily walks.
“Mr. Blue” grapples with the happiness found in sad moments and the tearful goodbyes that spark happier new chapters. Chambers’ protagonist goes through such a transformation in real-time. And if A Psalm for the Wild-Built ever graces our screens, I imagine “Mr. Blue” playing as Dex sets foot into an unfamiliar but adventurous world beyond the desk.
Warbreaker & “Colorful” by Jukebox the Ghost
A double helping of Sanderson? Don’t mind if I do. And paired with my favorite band, no less.
Listen, this one just screamed at me to the point where I’d feel remiss for not including it. However, a disclaimer is necessary: I am only about halfway done with Warbreaker. My analysis may not be perfect here, but the parallels are immediately obvious.
First, the refrain, which is endlessly listenable:
“Hey, and we’re just getting started.
Take your fears and let them go.
For the lovers and the brokenhearted,
Take a deep breath; make the world a little colorful.”
I first perked up at the mention of “breath” and “colorful” in a single line of the song, a juicy, too-good-to-pass-up nod to Warbreaker’s magic system.
Thus far, though, Warbreaker is a book about the unfamiliar new worlds in which we find ourselves. We’re told we need to grow up, better understand the things around us, and often left with a foreboding sense of uncertainty.
Whether the comparison holds up for one or all of Warbreaker’s characters remains to be seen, but I’ll take the surface-level chorus connection at the very least. Let’s hope the Sanderlanche to come feels like the repeated, uplifting melodies of “Colorful.”