THE FALL OF ERLON by Robert H. Fleming (SPFBO 6 FINALIST REVIEW)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
If you’re following SPFBO 6, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Before we plunge into the review proper, a quick thank you to SPFBO contestants and and spectators for your forbearance as the Fantasy Hive has gone through its finalist process.
Part of our approach for each stage has always been to get all the team to form an opinion on all the books so that we can take an overall collaborative view on our rankings, one that compares how much each book appealed to us.
We will be posting three of our Hive collective reviews each week (on Monday, Wednesday and Friday) for the rest of the month. We have decided our own 10th up to 1st ranking based on our average scores. However, we WON’T be following the rather grim posting in reverse order approach. Instead we will dot around our Hive leader board a bit. This years finalists were such a varied and individual mix of books and worlds that they each had something to recommend them and we hope to do each of them justice at least with the depth of our deliberations.
As we said at the semi-finalist stage we did feel we were fortunate to have had a strong batch of excellent books with several very credible finalist contenders in it. On reflection, we were perhaps a little conservative in the 8 that we gave Susannah Rowntree’s A Wind From the Wilderness, and our scores for the finalists as a whole take that into account. Suffice to say we aren’t busting out multiple 9s or 10s this year.
But here at last, our first round two review – The Fall of Erlon by Robert H. Fleming.
The Fall of Erlon
Robert H. Fleming
As empires burn, heroes must rise.
Elisa Lannes was once heiress to the mighty Erlonian Empire. But when her mother abandons the empire and her emperor father is defeated on the battlefield and sent into exile, the world she would rule collapses around her. As enemies converge on the capital, Elisa must join with the last of the empire’s loyal soldiers to escape the evil that hunts her and her family.
With the help of her father’s generals, can Elisa find the strength to fight for her people? Or will a twist in the tide of the empire’s last war awaken an evil far greater than the enemy’s blade?
The Fall of Erlon is the first in the new military fantasy series from author Robert H. Fleming. If you like deep fantasy worlds filled with colorful characters and massive battles, the gods and generals of the Falling Empires Saga is for you.
Nils: I think the cover of The Fall of Erlon is lovely. I like the lone figure standing upon a hill looking over the city. I like the way the ‘Erlon’ is set behind parts of the mountains in the far distance but is large enough to stand out, and I like the various hues of purple and blue. It sets a dark, ominous atmosphere which captured my interest.
Beth: I’m not that keen on the cover? I like the detail, and like you said Nils I like the way the image interacts with the font, but I think it’s a lot darker than what the story is?
Nils: That’s true!
Beth: I’m not sure I can place the scene on the cover with any particular scene in the book. If I had to associate a colour palette to this book, it would be greens lol!
Nils: I also think the way Fleming immediately throws us into a story of an exiled Emperor and a kingdom already fallen was a great way to grab a reader’s intrigue. The initial few chapters start with a grim, atmospheric prose, which is something that always draws me in too. For example in the prologue Fleming gives us a striking yet mysterious introduction.
‘The fire backlit the scene. Smoke from the pipe swirled about the Dark figure and his head turned slightly. He reached up and removed the pipe from his mouth.
“Visitors are so few and far between here.” The emperor’s voice was soft, but carried the length of the room easily.’
I found the overall tone to be poignant and reflective, for example during Elisa’s chapters you really feel her solemn mood.
‘The chill of the approaching winter hung in the air and the warmth from the fast-disappearing sun would soon abandon her.”
All these aspects worked to make the first 20% or so fantastically entertaining, yet unfortunately as I read on I felt my interest begin to lessen. The part which really began to let the prose down for me was the constant repetition. For example Princess Elisa, the Emperor’s daughter, constantly mentions how her father was exiled, her mother disappeared and she was left on a farm. Then there was Prince Rapp who repeatedly complained how he’s ‘missing out on the war’ and kept reminding us that the Kurakin were about to seize the capital. The further on I read the more this became irritating, I think Fleming needed to trust his readers ability to remember key information! It’s such a shame because otherwise, the start was so enjoyable.
Beth: Yes! This was one of my biggest issues with this book, you phrase it perfectly Nils.
Theo: I like the cover too, it has a kind of sweeping aspect of the city and the blue-grey hues that – in contrast with the small individual figure – captures the sense of an isolated individual taking on a world defying problem.
However 6% in and this is screaming Napoleonic wars inspiration at me more loudly even than Django Wexler’s The 1000 names. We have a warrior deposed emperor imprisoned in exile on a remote island on the opposite side of the world from his er… helloooo St Helena and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Filip: The influence of the Napoleonic wars is felt throughout!
Beth: Ha, my first note on this book is “it’s interesting that the king is called Nelson, when he’s visiting an emperor exiled to an island much like Napoleon was…”
Theo: His former colleagues – marshals all – are struggling to defend his own country. Somewhere a Royal Family have been restored to their fortunes and dignities by the alliance that overthrew the emperor. And… The emperor’s interlocutor is King Nelson Wellesley … Nelson Wellesley… get it? The two people who did most to confound Napoleon’s Plans were Admiral Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley – later Duke of Wellington. I have been known to plagiarise history myself (as has GRRM Martin with his House of Stark (York) and House of Lannister (Lancaster)). I am not sure how far Fleming’s Napoleonic parallels will play out and whether they will entertain me, annoy me or distract me – we will see.
I’d heard from Nils that the tactics and strategising aspect of the story felt a bit off, and – even at this early stage – I have to agree. Lots of mention of guns and siege warfare, but attacks coming from all directions, the emperor’s daughter in hiding on a farm within earshot of the besieged capital city, yet the enemy hasn’t even come calling for forage. I’ll see how it pans out.
Beth: I really enjoyed the opening chapter, as Nils has already said, the atmosphere really drew me in.
I found the writing flowed nicely, the prose was certainly enjoyable and easy to read. I thought we were being set up for a framed narrative with the emperor relating his story to this king, so I was a little disappointed when the next chapter was with his daughter, but it was only fleeting. I love a framed narrative. Still, a strong start; I did eventually have some issues – namely the repetition that Nils mentioned and the poor representation of warfare that Theo has touched on – but I’ll discuss those later.
Julia: I really liked the cover and went into this one with high hopes! I did enjoy the first few chapters and thought the record emperor very intriguing. The tone and voice had me hooked early on!
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Nils: Erlon consists of multiple POV’s – now I’m a reader who loves to see multiple perspectives in fantasy books, I love to be inside the heads of our ‘heroes’ as much as I love being inside the heads of ‘villains’. So I really appreciate that Fleming includes characters from both sides. However, I feel that there were so many characters in this book that were not well fleshed out and therefore felt redundant. I’m in two minds whether I feel a few characters should have been cut giving more focus on a smaller cast, or whether each character just needed fleshing out with further depth and more complex story arcs. What do you think Beth?
Beth: I agree with you about having the chance to be inside the heads of various sides of the conflict! I particularly liked Andrei in this regard. I think the issue may be not how many POVs there are, but how frequently we flick between them. Although I would say Leberecht was somewhat unnecessary, and a late addition coming in at chapter 17; because of that, he felt like convenience more than a perspective we needed.
Nils: That’s very true.
Having said that though, I did really like Elisa, Nelson, Emperor Lannes and even Andrei who was on the enemy’s side. I found myself mostly invested in these characters.
I feel that I could have warmed to a few more had they not been so whiny. For example all Prince Rapp ever did was complain… everything was unfair, it was always someone else’s fault – mostly his mother’s. He never shows any growth or initiative which by the end grated on me immensely.
Julia: Rapp… I wanted to strangle him myself…
Theo: I agree about Rapp, Nils, he is going to need quite some redemption arc in the next books to avoid being forever a whiny irritation. I think it doesn’t help that the way Fleming writes his scenes also telegraphs Rapp’s stupidity. We can tell when he’s making a mistake as soon as the words appear on the page. The other characters, Elisa, Laurenston, Nelson, Lannes, Pitt, all had a bit more of a sympathetic angle for the reader to connect with.
However, I agree that the multiple Points of View, while useful in showing the action from different angles, didn’t really allow us to see a depth to the characters. But even where we do see characters over and over again, the insights we get into their feelings and motivations are limited (yes “not well fleshed out” sums it up nicely, Nils). Andrei misses his family, Pitt worries about how his career will hinder/enhance his sisters’ marriage prospects. Mon drinks and has a dark secret which is alluded to repeatedly to the point where Mon is effectively saying to Elisa “I know you’ve been worrying about my dark secret without ever asking me about it but I’ll tell you everything when/if we get out of this next fix.”
Flemings’ love of his story comes through more effectively in the grand military strategising than in the detailed nuance to his characters.
Beth: I rather liked all the characters, except Rapp. You’re probably not supposed to like him, as a figure of incompetence who perhaps deserves what came to him, and I agree with you Theo, I can see a redemption arc for him in some later book. I did love that the characters were all so flawed, they all had their very personal insecurities; and knowing those, it was then interesting to see any given character from the point of view of another character. For example, Lauriston’s anxiety that he can’t live up to Lannes and make the right decision, but to Elisa he’s a loyal leader who she trusts and relies on. I do have to agree with Theo though, as much as I loved how emotionally complex the characters were, it could have been represented a little better as the repetition of their problems did become grating after a while, like they only had the one note to sing.
Julia: I agree with what was said above. The characters get a bit two dimensional to me. They could absolutely have used some more depth to them. One of the reasons I felt like that was because to me it seemed I was always told what characters feel or want. Usually I easily empathize with characters and “feel” with them. Here I was a step removed and read about it, instead of being part of the story.
My giant plus it’s the “young female princess” – and no whining, pining love interest! While there’s nothing wrong with a teenage romance, I wish there were also more young women in fantasy who had their focus on other things than young men…
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
Nils: I found the plot confusing at first because I couldn’t work out who was on which side of the war. Beth came to the rescue though, and after she suggested seeing this as akin to the Commonwealth, and showed me a map from Fleming’s website, things started to fall into place.
Beth: *dons her cape and wheels out the wind machine*
Theo: The map is unusual in that it is not embedded in the e-book, but delivered through a link to Fleming’s website. Fortunately I had my kindle wi-fi enabled and I think there is good sense to Fleming’s approach. My experience of kindle maps has been that they tend to be small, unzoomable and rather unsatisfactory, whereas the website approach did allow me to scroll and zoom more easily. Certainly the map was more useful than most.
Beth: I read this one before I had my new kindle, that is to say, on my phone – therefore flicking back and forth to the map was easy for me and helped a lot!
Nils: So the basic premise is that Erlon, the largest country, has been defeated. A coalition has formed between the Kurakin Horde, Brunians and Warhrians to conquer the Erlon Empire by seizing control of the Palace in Plancenoit. I thought this story arc was interesting to delve into at the beginning, but further into the novel, the plot became far too slow with many chapters becoming rather pointless. After about the 50% mark the action does pick up, Andrei begins to close in on his pursuit of Elisa, and the war takes some interesting turns, but overall I felt that many chapters stalled the plot from progressing at all and instead became repetitive inner monologues. Many of the characters would merely spend the chapter boasting of their assured victory when they were nowhere close to winning. It felt tedious.
I also found some scenes ludicrous. To give an example I’m going to give a massive spoiler here. Why was it so easy for King Nelson to set free Emperor Lannes from his exile on the island to aid him in the war? Even if the Island belonged to Brun and therefore was under King Nelson’s domain, if the Emperor was so notoriously feared and powerful as he was repeatedly claimed to be, wouldn’t the other countries have suspected something like this may happen and have set their own guards on the island too? I also found some of the strategic military scenes unrealistic, but I guess that’s a personal preference and this likely wouldn’t be a problem for a lot of readers.
Theo: The multiple points of view delivering their perspectives in very short chapters (some only a page in length) help to maintain a sense of pace.
However, these PoVs are braided around three basic plot strands: Elisa’s flight from the Kurakin; Rapp’s frustrations with the peace council; Jailer Nelson and exiled Emperor Lannes’ chatting about recent history. Although these strands do not converge in the story (yet) there is enough common background to them to ensure that they do bind together as a coherent narrative.
The Napoloenic war vibe/resonance is incredibly strong and there are perhaps shades of Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the multiple perspectives and Fleming’s panoramic view of continent convulsing conflict. Certainly some of the names (Andrei ringing bells for anyone?) and the style of combatants – a ferocious cavalry who eat near raw meat (Cossacks and a touch of steak tartar anyone?)
I did have an issue with space-time though, which seems to have a malleable quality in Flemings’ hands. Elisa’s flight North seems to take forever. (Indeed since one soldier breaks his arm in one skirmish and it is later judged to have healed – that would mean the journey lasts at least six weeks.) However, the news of a catastrophic defeat travels across the entire continent instantly, without any explanation. GRR Martin understood this problem of fantasy communication and had a kind of pigeon post of message carrying ravens. Tolkein had his palantiri, but Fleming offered no explanation I could see for how information travelled so much faster than people.
Nils: I thought this too! It’s these little details which needed to be included to make the story more believable.
Theo: I also feel that rescue by the seventh cavalry is a motif that should appear at most once in any one book/flight from danger.
Beth: I definitely thought pacing was the biggest issue with this book, particularly, as has been mentioned, Elisa’s flight; I felt mired in the forest forever. There were moments that were very exciting, when the enemy got too close for comfort for example. But I do feel that plot line could be tightened up a great deal. As Nils said, there was a lot of monologuing, and I feel they didn’t really create depth in the characters as they were rehashing the same issues. Instead, Elisa’s growth in confidence and the steps she took towards caring for the soldiers showed far more depth of her character.
Not to sound too repetitive myself, but to touch on this repetition that’s been mentioned; there were a number of times at the start of a change in perspective where Fleming felt it necessary to remind us what happened last time, or what the character was intending to do; it made me wonder as to Fleming’s process in writing, whether certain parts had originally been further apart when he wrote them, but then rearranged to be nearer? For example, in the fourth paragraph of Prince Rapp’s narrative at the start of chapter 7 we’re reminded of what he’d been about to do and what had happened to him last time we were with him… but there is only one perspective and a couple of pages separating us from those events and this reminder. The other issue I had with Rapp’s perspective was that we hardly ever got to read any of Rapp’s investigation, and instead we’re told about it after the fact. Each return to Rapp is an update of how poorly the investigation is going and how upset he is by that. We never get to witness this first-hand.
Julia: Repetitiveness is one of my pet peeves, and it was abound here. It felt almost like a serialised fiction that started with a recap every few chapters. I was thinking “Yes, yes, I know! It’s just been a few chapters since I read that, I don’t need a refresher…” all the time. It frequently brought my immersion to a full stop, and I find myself back on the couch reading, instead inside the book.
Beth: Yes Julia, exactly!
Julia: I actually think that it might be something other readers can benefit from, especially those who are new to epic fantasy or more complex stories. If however you’re used to reading series like A Song of Ice and Fire, it feels like being spoon fed…
Some bits felt just a bit off.
It takes one group half the book to go any from A to B and the other group almost seems to teleport.
The sheer proximity of a hidden princess to full on battle.
The immediate trust formed between people who were such enemies what feels like ten minutes before.
Some scenes are drawn out past my interest in them, while other bits are more or less skipped past.
While this kept me going at a good speed, it could have grabbed me a lot more if some parts had been smoothed out a bit.
Filip: Fall of Erlon, in concept, is tailor-made for me. Both military fantasy and military history are genres I love to read in, and I find Napoleon endlessly fascinating; so why is it that neither the plot nor its pacing managed to sweep me along? Perhaps it’s the lack of any elements I perceived as novel to this attractive formula, or maybe I read it at the wrong time. I’ve the suspicion that the prose is a little bloated–and reading my fellow judges’ comments about repetition, I’m led to believe that it’s not just I who thought so.
Also, did no one else find the idea that taking on the task to save Elisa is none other than a small party full of her exiled father’s commanding officers, the strategic and tactical backbone of this imperial remnant currently at war with an invading force? I understand loyalty, but these are supposed to be some of the most clever folks of the lot! Granted, this might tell us something about Lauriston, but it’s still worth mention as an eyebrow-raising moment.
Beth: Oh yes Filip you’re absolutely right! That really bothered me at the time, I remembered thinking WAIT who’s now running the army?!
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
Nils: I very much liked the world which Fleming created here. Although the fantasy elements were not exactly a prominent feature throughout the narrative, the snippets in which we get were my favourite parts of the book. I was extremely invested in the Lakmian race – these were creatures, almost human-like but with fur and tails, who had aligned themselves with the Erlonians. There was even one Lakmian who was an apparition and acted as a guide to Elisa. I loved the ambiguity of this character as you could never quite decipher whether the Lakmian was helping Elisa or sending her into danger. I would have loved more chapters with the Lakmians, to have learnt more about their culture and their history.
The Kurakin race were interesting too, I’m not quite sure if they were human or not? However the way Andrei had a connection with his sakk, his hawk, and could see through its eyes and mirrored its pain, suggested they had magical abilities. It was cool that they rode wolverines too, which reminded me of Warg Riders from Lord of the Rings.
There was also a Sorceress, but she is more mentioned than seen, and we learn very little about her power. However after finishing the epilogue, I sense that book two is going to focus more on her character.
I enjoyed the notion of the warring gods, the Ascended One, in particular. Again though, we never learn much about them nor do we delve into their backstory in detail, which is something I would have enjoyed.
Theo: Okay – Fleming mentions his love of military history and, having something of an interest in Napoleonic times myself, I have to say historical associations and analogies were going off in my head like a bar of popping candy chocolate.
Nelson Wellesley, king of the powerful island nation of BRun, its strength more in its navy than its army, perched on the edge of the map and separated from the continent by a narrow strip of water. Sounds a bit like BRitain!
Filip: No! Could it really be…?
Theo: Marshal Lauriston – the emperor’s second in command, the one he relied upon but who still made errors that plagued him. Ooh, reminds me of Marshal Ney (who arguably lost the battle of Waterloo while Napoleon suffered with his piles).
Fleming’s military fascination comes through too in the Ascended One, the ancient god/general that is the core faith of Rapp’s country. Now even before I heard that the statutes show the Ascended One wearing a toga, I was thinking – a general who was made a god? sounds a bit like Julius Caesar, which would mean Rapp’s ancient capital city is an analogue for Rome.
I should probably stop with the eye catching (distracting?) associations now.
The fantastic elements to the worldbuilding were fairly subtle – but still steered the story. I did find the Ascended One’s manifestation to Rapp a little blunt though and overly convenient for steering the plot and the character in a particular direction. The Lamarkian guide who appears to Elisa is a little more enigmatic – something of a Cheshire Cate in its appearances and disappearances. The story behind Elisa and General Duroc being guided by supernatural spectres (angels or devils?) will hopefully resolve in subsequent books, Magic is alluded to having been used in past battles, without being demonstrated in the present time of the book where battles fought out with cannons and bayonets.
Julia: Yes that Rapp scene definitely threw me a bit, as it was totally unexpected in the setting we’d seen so far.
Theo: While Lannes’ formidable guards are talked up quite a lot in Fleming’s description (Napoleon’s Old Guard anyone?), I did have doubts about their preferred combat style, carrying two crossed muskets fitted with bayonets on their backs. Wielding two swords in battle is a common enough fantasy motif since before Drizzt Do’Urden, but wielding two muskets?! I’ve only seen that done by Daniel Day Lewis in the final sequence of Last of the Mohicans and even then it was exceptional rather than routine. (There was a waterfall moment in Fall of Erlon that also reminded me of that excellent film.)
Filip: A legion of fantasy French Daniel Day Lewises… perish the thought!
Beth: My favourite aspects of the world building were also the magic systems and the enigmatic guides, and I also felt we could have done with more of them! Like Nils, I was intrigued by the Lakmians, and I found the Kurakins very interesting (particularly their connections to their animals). I felt these were certainly the most unique aspects to Fleming’s world building, with the rest, as Theo has run through, echoing the Napoleonic wars so closely I did find it a little distracting.
Julia: I loved the different fractions, and especially different races, though one thing annoyed me a bit, which I can’t name without spoiling something.
The world was interesting, and especially the different sorts of magic and fantasy were what kept me going despite some difficulties with the book.
Quotations that resonated with you
Nils: I liked this description of Andrei and the Kurakin warriors, it reflected just how threatening the enemy were.
‘No ties were ever needed for a Scythe’s wolverine. The beast snarled in reply and showed its white fanged teeth, giving Andrei a final sniff before lying down next to a tree.
Andrei turned and walked back to his Scythe warriors. The men checked their blades and pistols, counted napthas on their belts, and re-buckled boot straps. All had thick beards and long, dark hair. All were ready to fight.’
Beth: Fleming’s writing style is mostly to the point, it’s not particularly prosaic. There were one or two moments I bookmarked:
Nelson allowed the next silence to sit between them. He wanted the emperor to think. Behind the dark eyes the spark was moving about, working, thinking. The chill of fear that moments before had shocked Nelson turned to a thrill.
Nils: There were so many parts of this book that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Fleming really does have a strong opening few chapters and some fascinating characters and story arcs. I feel that with some thorough editing, and a more progressive plot, would work wonders to make the entire book as captivating as the beginning was.
Theo: Fleming does paint a compelling picture of a continent caught up in continuous warfare. The military strategising comes across reasonably well and the broad canvas of multiple nations and characters keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. I personally enjoyed spotting Napoleonic references, allusions and parallels. However, I felt the characters were to a degree subordinated to the plot, such that the points which seemed intended to draw out surprise or emotion in the reader didn’t work so well for me.
Beth: I agree with both Nils and Theo, I felt there was some predictability to the plot in that I was never particularly surprised by turns of events, but there was a lot about the story I enjoyed, and I particularly liked (most of) the characters (glaring at you Rapp). But like Nils said, I think the story could do with some tightening.
Filip: I’m all for eliminating some of that repetition, the back and forth, a little more selective editing–it’s a shame Fall of Erlon didn’t resonate with me the way I hoped it would, but I appreciate the fidelity to Napoleonic times and all the parallels to our own history.
Julia: I really enjoyed the tone and voice, so it was a quick and easy read. The world had me interested and wanting to explore ever more! There’s a lot of promise here, and if the characters get a bit more depth and the repetitive parts get taken down a notch, this might well become an author exactly perfect for me!
(to nearest half mark)
Placed 6th in the Hive’s Finalists List.