The People's Necromancer
By Dr. Rex Jameson
Dr. Rex Jameson was born in Alabama, near the beginning of the 1980s. He was raised in the Mt. Juliet area of Tennessee and graduated high school in 1999. He then attended college looking to get a degree in Computer Science but left after a year to get a job in a software startup in Minnesota. However after the dotcom bust in the mid 2000s he moved back to Tennessee and enrolled at Middle Tennessee State and finished his Computer Science degree. He would proceed to Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee to get his masters and PhD focusing on operating systems and AI. He currently lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and works with Research Stall at Carnegie Mellon University. He wrote the Primal Patterns series and The People's Necromancer (By the way, I am really liking the title for obvious reasons) is the first in a new series of books; with the first installment being self-published. Thus bridging our theme of last month with more self published work and bringing us something a bit spooky for Halloween.
The Kingdom of Surdel has had it relativity easy all things considered. While there are orcs on the borders, they are held off by the armies of feudal lords in alliance with the local wood elves. The Dark Elves are allied to the Kingdom but heavily focused on their own affairs in their last city of Uxmal. While there are great empires to the south doing mighty deeds and using fell magics, the Monarchs of Surdel have had to deal with smaller scale struggles between their feudal lords, easily solved disputes with their allies and tribal level raids and invasions by the above mentioned orcs. The easy life is over however and things are about to get worse. This is because things aren’t as nice as they seem; the Dark Elves of Uxmal are focused on holding back a demonic invasion and bluntly... They're losing. Meanwhile unaware of what's cooking beneath their feet the blood feuds and quarreling of the nobility is about to explode as two noble families using bandit armies to wreck each other’s land are about to tear open a box they can't close again. (This seems like a very stupid strategic move for the Dark Elves. Shouldn’t they be sending an ambassador up screaming bloody murder about a demonic invasion?)
Meanwhile Ashton Jeraldson is having a bad day in a bad life. It's not enough that his father disappeared on him as a child, his mother died, and that he's struggling as a blacksmith's apprentice. Ashton's best friend Clayton is dead too, killed when he was run over by the local lord's carriage without so much as an Ooops from said lord. In fact the book opens with Ashton attending the funeral with Clayton's widow Riley, a woman who has been rendered heartbroken by her loss. Ashton isn't much better and finds himself at Clayton's graveside screaming at him to get back up, because he's still needed. Ashton's bad life is about get even worse, because Clayton is doing exactly as he’s told. This kickstarts Ashton entry into a much darker and confusing world of competing supernatural beings, strange mystic rules and of course, power politics. Because Ashton, whether he likes it or not, is a necromancer. Ashton has to figure out how and on whose behalf he's going to wield a power that is widely feared and considered evil. He doesn't have a lot of time or space to do his figuring however, as his fellow villagers react to the idea of a necromancer among them by embarking on a witch hunt. The wild lands aren't safe either as a bandit army gathers, one that is capable of destroying entire towns and putting their populations to the sword. Ashton has to answer the question of whether he can he be a force for good and aide his fellow man; or is he doomed to a dark path where he becomes a plague and terror upon the innocent?
Now necromancy was originally believed to be the art of summoning the spirits of the dead in order to find out information and divine the future. By the time of the Medieval era, it was widely believed that necromancers were tricksters as only God could resurrect the dead or summon forth their spirits. Therefore it was widely believed that necromancers were summoning demons from hell to take the form of the dead and lure the unwary into damnation. In the modern era, the necromancer has been tied into the zombie (which actually comes to us from Haitian beliefs, which were in turn derived from beliefs from west and central Africa... Isn't a globalized mythology fun?) and turned into a figure that violates tombs and cemeteries to raise armies of undead monsters as his slaves and soldiers. I should note however that there's been a modern move to give zombies more depth then just mindless slaves. You see this in TV shows like Izombie for example. Ashton seems to raise both types of zombie. For example Clayton and at least one man he raises at the request of the man's young daughter, are sapient. They can speak, think and operate independently of Ashton, they have separate desires. Others seem more mindless, driven by Ashton's call for vengeance for their own violent deaths and the deaths of other common folk at the hands of forces beyond their control (So… they ARE killing the nobility and the class traitors!?<Editor Laughs in Communist>). That said both Clayton and the mindless horde seems to share a taste for human flesh. Clayton murders and devours bandits trying to kill Ashton, while the horde destroys the army that killed them in the first place. Dr. Jameson also weaves in medieval beliefs about necromancy, while Ashton has the ability to bring back a person's soul into their dead body... He can call something else into a dead body if he isn't careful. I won't go to far into it as we run the risk of spoilers but suffice to say necromancy in Dr. Jameson world is a dangerous occupation, not just to you but to everyone around you. So it's no surprise the first reaction people have is panic and terror.
Dr. Jameson’s characterization of Ashton is interesting as he's a basically a nice person who wants to be helpful. There's not really much else there I could grab onto in the story however. So Ashton comes off as a nice young man who is devoted to his friend and has some unresolved issues over his absent father but... There's not a lot else. A lot more effort is put into Julian the noblemen who actually killed Clayton and kick-started this whole thing in the first place. Julian is a the heir to the Mallory lordship, which is locked in kind of a on again-off again feud with the Vossen noble family. Both sides have turned to using bandits as disposable assets in causing damage to each other but it's mostly the common folk getting damaged. This is one of the better done parts of the book, it displays a level of political backstabbery that is believable, without getting so complex that you don't start wondering why the the plans don't collapse under the weight of all the moving parts. Julian has mixed feelings about unleashing bandits on people but is mostly focused on hiding a secret from his father. He’s also dealing with the guilt of killing Clayton, as he had intentionally sped up the carriage not because he needed to but to give his half sister Julia a thrill. Julia unfortunately doesn't really get a lot of time on scene. Her role seems mostly to tempt Julian into doing things he shouldn't. Julian doesn't come across so much as evil but as morally weak really. He’s unable to resist temptation and despite feeling guilty for his mistakes and misdeeds, he's unwilling to stop doing them. We also spend a bit of time with Prince Jayden, the prince of the Dark Elves who is desperately looking for some means to save his people from the endless onslaught they face. Jayden comes across as a man who is caught in quicksand, knows he's caught in quicksand and is begging for a rope but everyone keeps throwing him bricks while screaming about how they're helping. Dr. Jameson does a good job letting Jaydens tightly controlled frustration leak through here and there while having him maintain a diplomatic front.
The world building is fairly simple, if solid. In short if you've read fantasy or played dungeons and dragons, you kinda know this world. Part of that is the fact that book clocks in at 220 pages and is trying to cover a lot of ground, which doesn't allow him to get too deep into depth on any one thing. I kinda feel like there were parts of the book that could have cut or moved to the second book without hurting the plot and leaving more room to focus on Ashton so the readers could get a better sense of the protagonist or focus more deeply on the world. As it stands are there are a lot of secondary plots that get rolling in this book but aren't completely resolved. This leaves the book feeling like something like a prologue as there are a lot of set ups that do not pay off in the book. That said none of this is done poorly, it's just not done enough for my taste. I do also want to mention that the battles are well written, with Dr. Jameson showing among other things why a fully armored knight is a very scary thing to face if you're not a well armored and armed man and why you should never remove your helmet until you're out of a combat zone and I'm not kidding about that. For anyone in our armed services, take this tip from an old Corporal, keep your helmet on until you are out of the combat zone. The skull you save could be your own. I honestly feel that most of the issues I have with the story come from Dr. Jameson trying to cram in so much into so few pages. That said he presents an interesting view of a young man grappling with powers we normally reverse for the villains of our stories and trying to turn it around and do good for the people around him. I'm giving The People's Necromancer a B-. I have high hopes for the next book though, so rejoin us next week!
Because next week we tackle the sequel to The People's Necromancer, The Dark Paladin!