Angry Robot Books, 2016
In January, Silent Hall made Fantasy Faction‘s list of ‘Most Anticipated Fantasy Novels of 2016,’ which was how I discovered it. I’m not quite comfortable calling it “young adult crossover” because doing so shaves off audience for this debut. Dolkart has written an epic fantasy adventure of the swords and sorcery type that although it follows a group of young adults or new adults, if you will, is a story for everyone. It is a tale of adventure, discovery, and hard decision making. When asked to describe the novel, Dolkart suggested “Malevolent gods. Refugees from a cursed island. Giant freaking ants.“
The five heroes of this tale, Narky, Citron, Hunter, Bandu, and Phaedra, are rendered in a striking realism. By altering points of view every chapter between these characters, Dolkart is able to flesh out the personalities of each character, the understanding/misunderstanding of each towards the others, and show genuine organic growth while moving the plot along and not being mired in world-building (which is always the major hurdle for the debut of a new series).
The first third of the novel is the drawing together of our heroes, and although it takes some time, it is well worth it. There is Narky, known as the coward’s son, has to flee his village after finally snapping under the bullying he receives; Citron, revealed to us first through his mother’s point of view as she labors in a Rapunzel-like tower locked away from the world because she and her son are ‘Dragon Touched,’ fleeing his imprisonment; Hunter, the melancholy youngest son of a highest class noble, sent away by his father so to find himself; the forest-child Bandu fleeing the wild with her companion wolf; and Phaedra, another noble, longing to embrace the life of a scholar and priestess.
One of the qualities that I enjoyed and I think many fantasy readers will savor is how this group comes together mirroring the assembled parties of so much tabletop gaming and MMORPGs. Yet, it doesn’t feel forced or contrived but, again, organic. When the group finally makes its way to the mysterious castle which gives the novel its name housing the wizard Psander, the story begins to gather more intrigue. From this moment, magic not only enters but plays a major role in the story. We discover just how Dolkart’s pantheon of gods functions (it is a religious system that is involved but not confusing) and there are at least four dimensions to this world that of elves, dragons, gods, and humans all of which are abutting each other trying to break into or overcome the other. The cosmology Dolkart crafts and explores creates a brilliant foundation for the magic system of this world as well as its religions. Also, there is an underlying narrative about the urge toward unity, its violence and benefits, which I admire.
The plot of Silent Hall or, rather, the goal of our heroes doesn’t really reveal itself until readers are more than midway through the novel. Once it does become apparent what these wayward wanderers must do, what it seems as only they can do, the novel takes on an urgency that is often lacking in fantasy adventures. This is because Dolkart has spent the time to allow us to know the characters and the world. This troupe are outcasts not only because the population of their homeland, an island, was wiped away by an unknown angry god but also being islanders, they stand out on the continent where they are looking for answers and new home.
These young adult islanders (they seem to fall between 16-20 years old) stand out physically because of their skin color. This functions as a vital aspect of the story because, as Dolkart himself says, “they are instantly recognizable. When people hear about five black teenagers whose island has been cursed, and then see five black teenagers wandering around the mostly-white continent, they immediately know who they are.” As they attempt to find places to rest and get information on their journey (as well as return stolen children they have liberated to parents), it is made clear to readers that these are dark skinned heroes. But the world they are in has its own healthy racism: “‘Black skin, black hearts,’ one old lady said, as she slammed her door in their faces.” They are called “black cursebringers” and must navigate a course to save the world in one that doesn’t see them as deserving of respect.
There are few fantasy works out there that have people of color as protagonists (Dolkart has also made it clear his novel is meant as a Jewish allegory); Silent Hill does a fantastic job of braiding the race, religion, and your standard hero quest. There’s also a subtle but consistent anti-war or pacifist message in the novel best seen through the character Hunter who was trained from birth to be a warrior. When he goes to retrieve pack horses after the group has fought and defeated a swarm of giant ants (yeah, giant fucking ants, how cool is that?), Hunter returns crestfallen and conflicted. The young would-be warrior is wrestling with how casually he had to kill two men and how that doesn’t sync up with his romantic ideal of being a soldier, a warrior:
Hunter had trained hard for war. He had thought it would bring him glory and status and his father’s respect. But Father was dead now, and there was no glory in killing strong men for the sake of an animal and some rocks. Those men had been fathers too.
This hints at the core of Dolkart’s novel, “Of the many things that guide their actions, one of the main things is their struggle with their own moral compasses, with trying to understand how to be good people in a complicated world.” More than anything else, Silent Hall is a moral venture not merely a navel-gazing bildungsroman. By embracing and subverting fantasy tropes, Dolkart is able to at once enliven or refresh the genre while paying heed to its most endearing qualities.
There is something to this novel that feels like a D & D campaign written out and that’s hardly an accident. Yet, Dolkart’s writing is able to make the story something more than just this. His ability to interweave his characters hopes and fears, to have them both be themselves while mirroring the concerns of readers (Narky and Bandu especially seem to be this voice) heightens this story beyond more than a mere written mod, if you will. Reading Silent Hall, I was impressed by just how well thought out and paced the narrative was. As a first novel, this is supremely good book. As it ends with Narky pondering “He did not know what tomorrow would look like. He hoped it was better than today.” I find myself eager for the next installment wondering and hoping the same.
N. S. Dolkart is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts where he studied creative writing and Jewish studies. Silent Hall is his first novel. You can find Noah online at his website: nsdolkart.wordpress.com, and on Twitter@N_S_Dolkart.
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