Song of Echoes, by R.E. Palmer, is an epic fantasy with well-drawn characters and a classic feel. It starts off slowly but builds powerfully, its sympathetic characters operating in a beautifully-described landscape of rugged mountains and primoridal forests and swamps.
Normally in a review, I would start with the characters or the plot, but I think for this book it’s best to start with the map. Fantasy, of course, is a genre that loves its maps, but the map of the Five Realms in Song of Echoes is particularly interesting. You can see it here. (In fact, if you read the print version of this book, you’ll want to bookmark that link, as the map in the book is punishingly small.)
Immediately when I saw it, it sparked my imagination. The main feature is a high mountain range down the middle of a vertically-oriented continent. You can see tell with a glance how formidable the range is. Indeed, as you learn in the book, the only three ways to cross are through a treacherous path in the middle, going around the north side over the Draegelen trench and into the frozen land of the Neanderthal-like Ruuk, or going around the south side through the dense Farrand forest. Additionally, south of the Farrand forest, there’s another impossibly high mountain range, the Caerwals, that can only be crossed at a point blocked by the immense Caerwal Gate, which hasn’t been opened in three hundred years. On the other side of the Caerwal Gate are allegedly hordes of monsters waiting to overrun the Five Realms.
There are two main characters we follow throughout the book. The first, Toryn, is the adopted son of farmers in the cold northern realm of Harlyn, one of the realms on the west side of the mountains. Toryn dreams of adventures beyond his village, his imagination fueled by the stories of Hamar, an older farmhand who once served in the Archonian guard and traveled the Five Realms. Toryn looks forward to the annual visit of Archonian guard recruiters, for he is now of age to undergo the trial to join, though he’s afraid he won’t pass the trial as he’s smaller than his peers.
In fact, when the recruiters show up, they announce that the Archon, the powerful though aged sorcerer who rules the Five Realms, believes an invasion of the monsters from beyond the Caerwal Gate to be imminent. Therefore, there will be no trial, and all young men of age must join the Archonian guard and travel south for the upcoming battle. Toryn is excited to have his chance, but that evening, Hamar and his parents take him aside and say he must flee the village and not join the guard. They give him the true story of his father, who was not a farmer killed hunting a boar, as he’d always been told, but a mortally wounded man Hamar found in the woods near the village holding his infant son.
The man had the skin markings of a wyke, a sort of witch who are outlawed in the Five Realms but live on in dark woods and other secret places, and had bade Hamar take the infant and raise him. As the son of a wyke, and therefore possibly gifted with magic himself (though Toryn has never felt or shown any magical inclinations), the Archon will consider him a threat. Thus, Toryn cannot join the guard, but nor can he stay in the village, where he would be considered a deserter. Hamar will accompany him on a journey to the settlement of Greendell, where he has a friend who can shelter them. It will take a couple weeks to reach Greendell on foot.
The second main character is Elodi, a young woman about Toryn’s age. Her father, the duke of Harlyn, recently passed away under mysterious circumstances during a visit to Archonholm, the capital of the Five Realms. Now Elodi has become the Lady of Harlyn at far too young an age. As the book opens, she has arrived in Archonholm for the first time, where her father’s friend, Bardon, the Duke of Broon, the northernmost of the Five Realms on the east side of the mountains, takes her under his wing. The Archon has gathered them to press for more troops from each realm. But Elodi and Bardon believe their realms cannot spare more troops, for the bestial Ruuk from the icy north grow increasingly bold in their raids of Harlyn and Broon.
Bardon also shares Elodi’s suspicions of the nature of her father’s death, and believes the old duke had discovered something he wasn’t supposed to know in the ancient documents housed in Archonholm’s library. During a rarely-granted personal meeting with the Archon to discuss why they can’t contribute more troops, Elodi and Bardon also learn that the Archon, who is revered as the one who turned back the monstrous southerners and their sorcerous rulers three hundred years ago, does not live up to the image of strength and fortitude he projects to the Five Realms. In fact, in private he appears old, tired, and confused, only able to function due to the aid of his attendants and the Castellan of Archonholm. Is he really capable of leading the Five Realms if the southern barbarians finally break through the Caerwal Gate after all this time?
Meanwhile, Toryn and Hamar reach Greendell but find it has been burned to the ground, and the nearby mines of Drunberg are under siege by Ruuk invaders led by a powerful, evil wyke. Toryn and Hamar manage to reach the mine to help the besieged miners, and release messenger birds to convey the situation. The birds reach Elodi at Archonholm, and since the metal production at the Drunberg mines is crucial to the war effort, the Archon gives Elodi a small contingent of elite knights and allows her to return to Harlyn to try to defeat the Ruuk invaders. Unfortunately, neither Toryn, Elodi, nor the Archon suspect how extensive the Ruuk invasion really is, nor its connection with the southern barbarians building up on the other side of the Caerwal Gate….
There’s a lot to like about Song of Echoes: well-rounded and sympathetic characters, imposing and gorgeous landscapes, and a writing style that feels classic in the Tolkien vein. I’m afraid for many readers, though, the book will be hard to get into, for it’s slow to get going. It’s not until around page 200 that the action really starts. Until then, there’s a lot of set-up with Toryn and Hamar camping in various beautiful settings and coming across mysterious things, and Elodi and Bardon attending meetings and coming across enigmatic happenings in the nooks and crannies of Archonholm. Personally, I found much of this material fascinating, but I know many readers just won’t have the patience. If you stick with it, though, the wait is worth it, for the plot builds up to a truly intense and action-packed second half. I suppose I can recommend Song of Echoes to more patient fantasy fans who don’t mind a slow burn so long as they know it pays off.