The Echoes of Those Before, by James Daniel Ross – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Echoes of Those Before, by James Daniel Ross. Illustrated by Josh Parise.
Clairton, PA, Copper Fox Books, May 2015, trade paperback $11.99 ([3 +] 256 pages), Kindle $2.99.
“In a broken world, in a broken land, there lay the shards of a kingdom. Near the center of that lost kingdom, protected by mountains, there lay a vale; along the river resided the five villages of the Fox Folk: Iceriver in the cleft of the hills where sun rarely shone; Oxbow, where the fishing was best even if done through the ice; Rocklake, where lived the steaming mud pits and the elder, where matters of law were discussed; Springvale at the entrance to the vale where the merchants and craftsmen met incoming caravans, and Sunrise, high on the slopes.
It was normally a peaceful, happy place among the low, rolling hills and tall, stately trees. Normally happy, but not today. Today they were losing one of their own.” (p. 4)
The Prologue and the first chapter introduce the main characters, Iam the white-furred Fox and Maverus the black-furred (shown on the cover by Christina Yoder) of the Fox Folk. They also establish that the Fox Folk are not the only Animal Folk, and that they have counterparts among the regular animals.
“Before the fire, stood the tall, gaunt form of the elder. He was not a Fox, but a Drake. Some whispered he was a dragon, but he stood only just taller than they, and never breathed fire. He blinked inscrutable eyes set in a pebbly, gray reptilian face, tasted the air with a long, forked tongue, and adjusted his robes for more warmth.” (p. 6)
“There, on all fours, was not a Fox, walking on two legs, but a fox, walking on four. Smaller, lighter, without clothes and unable to speak, it was just an animal. It looked at him with curiously compassionate eyes. Iam realized with a start that the fox was the same color as the guardian who had just passed. Legends have said that sometimes the spirits of Folk would be reborn in the bodies of their animal counterparts to watch over their loved ones. Yet, Iam had no real connection to the former guardian.” (p. 12)
The “broken world” in which the Fox Folk live is full of the ruins of Those That Came Before:
“When asked, the Folk simply shrug and say that such things belong to Those That Came Before. […] It had been over three thousand years since They had last walked the world, and in their place the Folk had come. New kingdoms had flourished and fallen. History had continued, yet it was built on the graves of all that had Come Before.” (p. 2)
Chapter 1 is titled “All That Came Before, Will Come Again”. The book is mostly Iam’s and Maverus’ story. Iam is a stereotypical omega character among the Fox Folk, an insecure ignored orphan (not that his parents are dead, but they left the village years ago), picked upon by all the bullies. Only Maverus stands up for him, and that’s less out of real friendship than because standing up for puny Iam gives Maverus a socially-approved way of showing off how strong and kindly and protective he is. The village guardian was very old and clearly could not last much longer – in fact, as The Echoes of Those Before begins, she has just died – and the brawny 16-year-old Maverus plans to make himself the obvious choice as her replacement. The reader can guess that things won’t go as Maverus expects.
Iam has set himself on becoming the elder’s unofficial acolyte; a good job for a scholarly-inclined loner. The elder quietly raised his eyebrows, but allowed Iam to imitate him and study under him. The elder is what the village has as a teacher and magician. Most of his magic goes into farming charms and anti-pest spells. The elder sighs and agrees that the unambitious Iam is best cut out for a sedate, safe life instead of aspiring to “romantic ideas of warriors, hunters, guardians, or wizards.” (p. 27)
Without giving away spoilers, let’s just say that Iam turns out to be a more powerful spellcaster than he expects. He and Maverus go on a quest together to save the Fox Folk; the snowy kit as a hesitant natural wizard, and the dark kit as his personal guardian. Their quest is as full of as much adventure as anyone could want:
“The devilcats were each the size of a pony. They were covered in spiky, dark brown plates sloped back from a feline head and ending in thick, lashing tails. At the joints, and in stripes between the plates and along the belly, thick black fur bunched and corded with the muscle beneath. Long whiskers twitched at him and forked tongues lapped the air for his frightened scent. The eyes were clenched small against the light of his torch.” (p. 84)
The devilcats are the fabled Hollow Hunters. They may have been natural monsters that destroyed Those That Came Before. Or Those That Came Before may have destroyed themselves in an unimaginable war, and the devilcats are their leftover artificial weapons. Why have they reappeared after so long? Iam must find out, with Maverus as his half jealous, half proud friend in truth. They must find allies and build an army before it is too late. “‘We only saw a few, but there are more. They are very far away, but they are coming for us. For everyone: Foxes, Hounds, Wolves, Cats, all the Folk. They wiped out Those Who Came Before.” (p. 102)
The Echoes of Those Before is a suspenseful mystery-adventure. It ends satisfactorily, but this is the first novel in a series – a genuine series, not a multi-volume single novel. Amazon.com lists it as “A Saga of Those Before, vol. 1”. Hopefully Ross will gain more writing experience. This is mostly fine, but his writing is often overly pretentious, and his learned Folk are too flowery artificial-archaic:
“The elder sighed, and in that second, the gathering storms around him fled back into the starry night. He smiled sadly. ‘Of course, my boy. Old age hath given me the habit of grievous worry. I gave thee access to this wealth of knowledge because I knew thou wouldst need some direction after thine parent’s passing. Thou hast a very magickal people, and thou are far more talented than most. I had just hoped my warnings of the hexes would have held thee off for a longer time; into adulthood and far greater wisdom.” (p. 26)
Fortunately, there is not much of this. The Echoes of Those Before will leave the reader waiting for volume 2. Recommended.