The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the story of Peter the tale spinner and his nephew, fourteen year old Tom, who are on their way to York to enroll the lad as an apprentice clerk for the government, per his mother’s wishes. Meeting a wide variety of people on their journey, through their conversations the state of the land, as ruled by a strong-armed theocrat, slowly comes into view. Tom a gifted pupil of the pipe, his tongue, split like a serpents to produce notes in the two halves of his instrument, was trained by the now dead magician Moffred. Hoping to keep the young boy’s talent backing his street corner parleys for a while longer, Peter attempts to subvert Moffred’s teachings the closer the two draw to York. But it’s in the medieval-esque city that the decision is made for them.
Cowper proving himself as adept a storyteller as Peter, what begins simple enough slowly cottons into a tale that extends beyond the traveling duo to encompass a kingdom. Not epic-epic, however, Cowper keeps his story character-centric, a person here and there added to expand the setting. The prose smooth and gentle (Robert Silverberg’s comes easily to mind), the reader is guided along without truly feeling the pages turn, imagery perfectly balanced with dialogue and plot development. Aiming at and hitting the larger concepts of religion, society, revolution, and societal transition, the fact the whole reverts back to the characters is a testament to the novella’s integrity.
In fact a prologue to a longer story, the success of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn would inspire Cowper to continue writing. A trilogy of books appearing in the aftermath, The Road to Corlay was the first. Entirely self-enclosed, the reader need not worry they are engaging with a larger story that must be continued in another volume, however; the novella opens smoothly and closes neatly on a single tale.
In the end, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a piece of bittersweet storytelling that leaves a mark on the reader’s soul. A tragic tale, the denouement offers something transcendent. Any larger commentary, however, is left for another day. Cowper producing a highly readable storyline, readers coming from all backgrounds will be able to find something to love about it. (If the reader is interested, it’s possible to look in two directions to read the story: for the novella itself, or The Road to Corlay, which has The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as its prologue.)