Joshua P. Simon
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Seeing as how he's only published one novel and a few pieces of short fiction, it would be understandable if the name "Joshua P. Simon" were unfamiliar to you. But if you're smart, you'll make note of it and remember it. If you're smarter, you'll buy and read Rise and Fall.
In his author bio, Mr. Simon includes among his influences Robert E. Howard and Glen Cook's Black Company. Howard is one of my favorite authors, and the Black Company one of my favorite series. By divulging this information, Mr. Simon set the bar of my expectations high. Very high. The question is, did he meet them?
The answer is "Yes, yes he did." While the influences of Howard and Cook are clearly seen by anyone familiar with the work of these gentlemen, Simon hasn't simply imitated. He's taken their influence and made something his own.
The story opens with a mage wigging out and killing vast numbers of people. Actually, this precedes the opening, which is when a group of mages arrive to deal with him. The evil mage, Nareash, has acquired a lost artifact, Sacrymon's Sceptor. The sceptor increases his power, but it also seems to have made him more evil than he already was. During the course of the battle, all of the mages are killed along with the king, who had been under Nareash's control.
There are three principle characters in this novel. Elyse is the princess who ascends to the throne after the death of her father. Barely more than a girl herself, she is ill prepared for ruling, to say the least. Yet she has no choice. It's time to grow up, and growing up won't be easy, especially when several nobles decide to make a play for the kingdom.
Her older brother Jonrell ran away from home twelve years before to escape his father and joined the Hell Patrol, a notorious band of mercenaries. Now he's their commander. After learning of the death of his father, he's coming home. And he's bringing his mercenaries with him.
Tobin is the second son of the chieftain of the Blue Island Clan. Hated by his brother Kaz, who was appointed Warleader by their father, Tobin is the laughing stock of the elite warriors, the Kifzo. All he wants is to be accepted by his father. (Most of the main characters in this novel have father issues.) His fortunes begin to change when he rescues the shaman Nachun during a raid on a village.
The strength and power of this novel come from the way Simon handles the characters. In addition to Jonrell, Elyse, Tobin, and Kaz, there are a number of secondary character whose viewpoints the reader gets to see. Each of them is a real character, with good and bad traits. The four characters I named in the previous sentence get most of the character development, and develop they do. They all grow and change. None of them are remotely the people they started out to be.
While Simon puts his characters through the fire, he doesn't do it just to see how much pain he can cause them. They experience joy as well as sorrow. While pretty dark at times, this isn't a novel of nihilism. Instead I found it pretty balanced.
Much of the way Simon develops his characters is through their words. There's a difference between writing dialogue that reads like dialogue in a book and writing dialogue that reads like real people talking. Joshua P. Simon writes the latter. It's what brings the characters to life and fleshes them out in this story.
But don't think that all this book deals with is talking and relationships. There's plenty of action, from one-on-one conflicts to epic battles, with sieges and assassination attempts scattered about for good measure along with more than a dash of intrigue. The supporting cast of the Hell Patrol get their moments, and each of them also changes and grows, most in good ways but some in not so good. The pace of the battles, particularly as the book progresses is where the Howard influence shows the strongest. I'm glad one night I put the book down before one of the major battle scenes and forced myself to go to bed. If I hadn't, I would have been up way to late and then probably been too excited to sleep.
Not all of the characters come together before the end. There are ultimately two main story arcs that will converge later in the trilogy, although one intersects the other in a way that completely surprised me. Both arcs end with a twist. And the twist contained in the final two sentences of the book? Nicely done, Mr. Simon, nicely done.
A couple of other things I'd like to mention. First, while I doubt this book was written with the intention of being a YA novel, I would have no problem giving it to someone in the YA or middle grade range, at least not on the grounds of content. It might be a bit long for some younger readers. The graphic sex and profanity that make some novels and series unsuitable for younger readers is missing, something I found refreshing after the previous book I read. If you know a young reader whom you'd like to introduce to epic fantasy, this would be a great place to start.
The second thing that favorably impressed me was the role religion played in the book. It was an integral part of the lives of many characters, especially Elyse. The role of religion in pseudomedieval fantasy cultures was mentioned in a post by Theo over on Black Gate the other day as part of a discussion of historical authenticity in fantasy. Theo has mentioned (more times than I'm willing to look up the links tonight) that one area that tends to get short shrift in modern fantasy is the role religion played in medieval times, objecting to the way it tends to be ignored. I think he would approve of the way it's portrayed here.
The only complaint I have was that there was no map. I would have liked to have seen where Tobin's home was in relation to Elyse's. I'm not sure the lack of a map wasn't intentional. There are strong hints in places that Tobin and Elyse are separated in time as well as in space. If that's the case, it has some interesting implications. I could be wrong. Nachun says, in the scene in which he - no, I can't go there. It would spoil one of the major surprises.
Anyway, I expected I would enjoy this book when Mr. Simon asked if I would like a review copy, otherwise I would have declined to review it. I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. This has been one of the better books I've read over the last couple of months. It's another indie published book with fine production values: good cover art and copy, well formatted, interesting story.
Oh, and I lied. There is one other complaint I have. The second volume won't be out for a few more months. Check this one out. You'll be glad you did.