You know that little voice in the back of you head when you start a highly touted debut novel, "can this live up to the hype"? Well, in the case of N.S. Dolkart's Silent Hall, the answer is an enthusiastic yes! This is an original fantasy, with elements of coming of age, epic fantasy quest, and social commentary. In turns funny, action packed, tragic and thought provoking, it is a character driven story that has you rooting for the main characters, warts and all.
The five main characters are Hunter, a noble's brave, selfless son trained as a warrior; Phaedra, a rich merchant's daughter who lives for books; Bandu, a wild girl with fairie magic that was raised by a wolf; Criton, a Dragon Touched (some draconic features, such as scales, magic and fire breathing, as well as basic shape shifting) and Narky, a coward's son who is running from his past.
After barely escaping from their homeland as the inhabitants were cursed to death by an angry god, the five travelers find themselves on the mainland, shunned for being from a cursed island and for their dark skin. Determining they cant afford to stay in the port city they landed in, they head inland, determined to find a place in the world. In a small village they come to, they discover the village is about to be raided by "freedom fighters", and the party hears of a local wizard from the villagers. Determining the village can't afford to be robbed yet again, they convince them all to come with them to the wizard's castle for shelter. The castle is Silent hall, and is home to Psander, who appears to be an old man. Bandu and criton see through the Glamour, though, and realize Psander is a middle aged woman, hiding under an illusion. Silent Hall was constructed to hide Psander from the eye of the gods, who years earlier had roused their followers to destroy the wizards. Psander interviews each of the party, and she agrees to help them attain their goals, in exchange for performing services for her. These task include helping the "freedom fighters" help slay a Sacred boor and bring the skin back, as well as bring back some magical mineral and mushrooms from an old dragons lair. On these quests, they meet suspicious villagers, travel to exotic locales, and are almost killed by an invading army. The story takes months to progress, but the author isn't one of those writers that fills pages with fluff. If a journey is uneventful, he just says, a month later, they arrived at their destination. He is very focused. The party decides to go start searching for some of their own goals, but they decide to keep together to do it. This has mixed results, as they are captured by elves, and not the Tolkien kind, more like the Brothers Grimm, the children are so tasty, kind. They escape in an action packed sequence, rescuing a bunch of kids as well. As they are returning the kids to their families, the fanatical High Priest of the City of Ardis, goes on the warpath, and crosses paths with them. Since he slew all of Criton's kind, he sees it as his mission to kill him and his companions too. The party determines they need to find and bring back the dragons if they can, and with some clues left by a goddess, they manage to cross the veil and find one. They figure out that to free him they need something from the elves home, and some help from the gods. They find out the last thing they need is the tears from someone cursed, which basically means the king of their homeland, left alive all alone on the island with the dead. This means a trip home for them. After a nerve racking trip, they discover the King and convince him to come with them, with the wrath of the vengeful god nipping their heels. When they return to Silent Hall, it is surrounded by two armies, and they have to make their way in to save the day. What follows is a mix of magic and steel, single combat and the return of dragons to the world. The story leaves off there, with the party having won the day, but a long fight for justice ahead of them.
The thing I really enjoyed most about this story was how character driven it was. Yes, the book has magic and battles, but the author really chose to focus on the characters, their differing personalities and the way they interact together and grow as individual characters. He doesn't get heavily into explaining every facet and detail of the magic, giving a quick view as they are used, and leaving lots of room for future growth. I think my favorite character was Narky. His character arc is probably the biggest, because he keeps trying to fight his true nature, and only at the end is he able to reconcile that he will never be selfless like Hunter, magical like Criton, educated and cultured like Phaedra, or fearless like Bandu. He can just be Narky, the guy who will help his friends, but is willing to do the job dirty, as long as it gets done, as well as the guy who will scream "run away" when theres danger as well.
As far as who will enjoy this book, I believe any fan of epic fantasy, or anyone who just like a well written, focused character driven story, will enjoy this book. If your big into Anthony Ryan's Blood Song series, Michael Sullivan's Ryiria series, Tim Marquitz's Blood War series, or Jeff Salyard's Bloodsounder's Arc series, then this book should be a must read for you.