“Song in the Silence” is the debut novel of Elizabeth Kerner, published in 1997, and the first novel in what eventually became a trilogy. There is a wonderful story captured in the pages, just waiting to be explored once you’ve managed to make your way past the stereotypically nineties cover art. I don’t know if I can say it was a unique story because my knowledge of female writers of fantasy from the nineties is sorely lacking (something I’m trying to change), but I can definitely say it had a much different tone from most other fantasy novels I’d read.
While the world doesn’t have the same kind of almost-human characterization some other fantasy novels go for, it still conveys a sense of breadth and depth to the readers. The bits of historical information Kerner provides to make the world feel real are worked into the flow of the story and they never feel like exposition or an information dump aside from one or two moments where a major historical event is shared with the protagonist so she understands the enormity of what’s going on. Even those moments feel a lot more natural than they otherwise might because they’re almost always delivered in the form of smaller stories told by one character to another. Though only a small portion of the world is shown through the course of the story, the introductory narration and the traveling the protagonist does firmly establishes a much larger world that you can feel hovering around the edges of the story as you read through it.
The mythology, which sets the stage for the main conflict of the novel and of the trilogy, is not entirely new though Kerner does a great job of breathing new life into it. The mythology plays into the trope of Dragons as beings of order and demons as beings of chaos, informing the ways the two groups interact with not only each other, but with the neutral humans who can, of course, pick either chaos or order. Which, in this story, means that humans can be good or evil, relying heavily on the cliché of order being good and chaos being evil. There is no way to avoid clichés entirely, nor is it necessary to do so, but this particular one has always felt like too much of an oversimplification to me. That being said, I would call this particular cliche more of a pet-peeve than an actual issue in this case. Kerner’s story may lean heavily on the “human ability to be good or evil” idea, but the idea is used as less of a crutch and as more of a support beam. It is incorporated into the story as an important aspect of the story itself rather than used to prop up a weak philosophical concept a character is espousing. It turns from “chaos is evil and order is good” into “this person is evil and uses the power of chaos to act against order and good separately, in pursuit of their selfish goals.”
One of my favorite parts of the book is that every character in the novel could be you, your friends, or someone you’d meet at work. Unlike most fantasy characters, who I would not want to meet because they’d be insufferable, I would actually love to hang out with the people from this book. Maybe get a drink or a late brunch. They all have their flaws and they all tend to keep running into trouble as a result of them, but never in the same way. Some characters learn of others’ flaws and exploit them, young people are inexperienced and rather stupid, and the powerful are somewhat impulsive as a result of overconfidence. The protagonist, a young woman, falls into a few traps over the course of the novel because she is naive. She struggles with how to relate to some of the other characters because she learns of these huge gaps between her experience and theirs. The villain almost cackles over a steaming cauldron, but it is strongly implied that he’s gone insane at that point, as a result of all of the demon magic he uses. It feels a lot more natural because you can also imagine him cackling over a bowl of oatmeal or as he goes for a pleasant afternoon hike.
In direct opposition to the humanity of the characters (including the non-human ones), there was a rather heavy-handed romance subplot in this book. The protagonist and her love interest wind up in a relationship and loving each other not because they’ve gotten to know each other well and developed a relationship, but because they lay eyes on each other and begin to fall in love. There are prophecies mentioned here and there, as a part of the prophecies driving the major plot points of the trilogy, that make it seem like they were destined to love each other. After they’ve confessed their love for each other and had a soul-bonding moment, the relationship gets significantly more normal if you pretend they actually took their time getting to that point. I like the later depictions of the romance and their relationship better because it more closely matches the more human way most relationships in our world work.
I would recommend reading “Song in the Silence” if you want a book with interesting and real characters, a well-developed world that fits nicely into the “high fantasy” genre, an entire race of intelligent and rather “human” dragons, and don’t mind one of the major plot points being a Disney princess style romance that feels a bit shoehorned into the rest of the story. It is a rather quick read, though I recommend taking the time to pace yourself rather than attempting to devour it in one day. Though quick, it is still a bit too meaty for a single sitting.