Review: The Unremembered (Author’s Definitive Edition) by Peter Orullian
Book One of The Vault of Heaven Trilogy
[Edit Note: Having just read the second book I am really glad I stuck with this series. So while the review below is fairly negative, Book 2 Trial of Intentions is by far the better book, and the promise in this series finds fruit in the second volume.]
Short Version: A solid epic fantasy that hits all the right notes, but perhaps in a slightly too familiar tune. It might not blow you away, but it does promise a much deeper and rewarding story in subsequent volumes now that the foundations have been laid and the author feels freer to explore the world he has built.
Longer Review: The publishing history of Peter Orullian’s first volume of the Vault of Heaven trilogy is a fascinating story in and of itself, one that resulted in a new version of the first book being released that is significantly shorter and quite different from the original release. As this is the author’s preferred edition, the latest edition, and the one that now serves as the first book of a trilogy, the review below is of it and not the original publication.
Fans and authors walk a tightrope when it comes to epic fantasy. As fans we want more of the same, only different. Like the Lord of the Rings, only different. Like The Shannara Chronicles, only altered. Like the Wheel of Time, but new. Familiar enough that they feed the same appetite, but different enough that they don’t feel like carbon copies. But we also complain loudly when authors aren’t original enough, aren’t innovative enough, and conversely, when they are too innovative, too original. Authors want to produce recognisable fantasy epics but ones that are unique. They want their stories to cater to the tastes of the fans, but serve them something they haven’t had before. There are formulas, tropes, conventions (not the comic-con kind), and stereotypes, and an uneasy, tacit agreement that some should be used, others subverted, and that, in the end, the whole should be a new dish made out of familiar ingredients. I say all this, because in almost every fantasy epic there are recognisable and familiar aspects. Those that deviate too far from the beaten path often lose the reader. Those that stay beholden to established patterns become predictable and not particularly entertaining. What complicates this further is when the story being told in a volume is a book one, a first step into a new world, the opening of a narrative that is to be at least three volumes long. Judging a play by its opening act can be a mistake. Judging a mystery novel by its opening chapters robs the reader of the conclusion. But in those instances, the whole is present there in one sitting. For fantasy trilogies, the whole story, spanning three volumes might be thousands of pages long.
So what has this to do with Orullian’s The Unremembered? Quite a lot it turns out.
I don’t set a lot of stock in plot summaries because, by their very nature, they distil the story down into a few lines bereft of context, flavour or character, and are bland generalisations of what you find in a book. But they do give you an idea, however vague, of what you are about to read. So, with my provisos in place that this is not truly representative of what is actually delivered in the book…
A brief summary of the plot will have fantasy fans groaning as it appears as stereotypical and unoriginal as you can get. A young boy with a special magical gift (in this case with a bow), on a journey with a magical and wise man, accompanied by a close friend to provide occasional comic relief, a warrior woman, a sister with a magical ability with song, and an apprentice warrior scholar. Ok so the last one might look a little out of place. They are on a quest to journey to a mystical place in an effort to save the world from a mystical evil. A dread magical evil that had previously been banished from the land, but the barrier holding the evil back is failing.
So on the face of it there is little here to suggest that Orullian’s book is anything but ‘unremembered’, as off-hand I can think of several series that have very similar plots and remember them quite well. The over-arching story of The Unremembered is very familiar and well-trodden. Although it should be pointed out that it is well rendered, well told and interesting, but the story itself seems like the foundation work for a bigger story, a larger story, and, at the end of the day, a much more interesting story. As I read I kept waiting for the world to drop away as some amazing plot development sprang into the fore, but that never materialised. There are hints of this grander narrative, the tantalising glimpses of a rich history that will be developed in the future, flashes of plot points that look dead set to blossom into a rich, deeper and more original tale in future instalments, but as it stands, The Unremembered is a solid foundational epic fantasy that does all the plodding groundwork of laying out the bones with none of the real pizazz as it relentlessly pushes the characters through the plot.
But well drawn characters can make even the most well established stories come to life. Yet, unfortunately, once again, while the groundwork appears to have been laid for all the characters to become much more interesting in the next book, this volume fails to give them the necessary moments to shine and stand out.
Tahn (a name that autocorrect loves to change to Than) is the typical, slightly naïve youth with a mysterious past, mysterious power, and mysterious destiny. All very mysterious. As the central protagonist there are strong shades of every other young, slightly callow, boy-destined-to-be-great character from fantasy. But the story ends just as he experiences something that might actually change him into someone much more engaging and unique. This is not entirely unforeseeable as the story focuses on Tahn’s journey toward the rite of passage that will make him a man. He is not badly written, he is not overly annoying, he is just not fully developed here. He is the bare bones of the character he will become, the opening refrain that introduces the symphony. Adding to this lack of development is the significant effort expended by the other characters, and by the author, to keep Tahn unsullied as a character, to keep him pure and prepare him for the magical judgement. But, as a result, the muck and grime that gets under the fingernails of great characters is simply missing here. He never gets the folds and careworn creases that make the character feel real. There is so much potential to his character that this story never quite gets to, and yet… and yet… there is a strong promise that the story and his character will explode with the next volume.
Vendanj, the Sheason (wizard monk) is almost the typical grumpy wiseman leading the quest group. He utilises the Will (similar to the Force from Star Wars if I am brutally honest, or The Will and the Word from Eddings’ Belgariad) but he is at least a great deal more pragmatic and dangerous seeming than many of his epic predecessors and peers. By the end of the story we have been granted glimpses of his interesting backstory and of the wider conflict he is part of, as well as moments of depth and complexity to his character. But in terms of development, much of his time is spent forwarding the plot to the next stop in the quest journey, pushing focus onto Than as the most important person in the universe, and being slightly mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. It is not all bad though, the cost of wielding the Will appears to be pretty high and despite the narratively convenient moments of respite from attack, it appears that future Vendanj may have a significant bill to pay concerning his use of power. Also his conflict with the political forces of the world as well as the magical ones, and the schism forming in his own religion suggest that Vendanj’s story will grow in originality and complexity. He has the potential to be a great addition to the pantheon of guiding mentor figures of fantasy as he has feet of clay, and there are hints of more than superficial brusqueness and irritability to his portrayal. But the reader isn’t given the opportunity to truly experience his unique flaws and we have yet to bear witness to the cost of his actions, all that is yet to come.
Wendra is Tahn’s sister, and by far the most interesting of the assembled quest-party. Admittedly she has a rape and lost child backstory that grates the teeth a little, and her arc in the book involves her being captured, but she has definite character and strength of will. She is no damsel in distress, and, while the kidnapping plot is a little stale by this point, Wendra never feels like a helpless victim waiting to be rescued. Her ability to shape song into magical effects, while still in its infancy in this volume, is one of the high notes of Orullian’s book. Magical music and singing is hardly original in fantasy stories, but Orullian imbues it with a complex vibrancy that makes it believable and really brings it to life. To borrow a term from the book, he imbues it with resonance. One of the major strengths to Orullian’s writing here is his use of this magic system, and affinity with how music is magical and powerful. While only the first few notes of this system are played out on the page, it does promise to be a fascinating and powerful aspect of future books. Yet, returning to Wendra, due to the nature of the story focusing on Tahn’s journey, she is given pretty short shrift here, even if the ending once again promises a lot more from Wendra in the books to come. But all the seeds are there for her to really grow and become a dominating figure of the larger story as her power, will and character rival her personal tragedies and losses. Of all the characters she seems to have the most potential to be realised, and, given the importance of song to the magic system and to the world, as well as Wendra’s ability, she will undoubtedly have a much more important role in the later books.
Mira, a Far, one of the magical races of the world, is a warrior who will die at the edge of maturity (which seems to be around 18 or 20) like all the members of her semi-magical race. Blessed with supernatural quickness and apparently no need to sleep, Mira is the warrior protector of the group. She is knowledgeable about the magical threat the world faces, but isn’t really forthcoming about her mysterious race, the magical backstory, or the strange history of the world despite the fact that it would seem to be useful information for the group. While she has a number of action scenes her main purpose in the story seems to be to serve as Tahn’s first crush and to dispatch the occasional enemy. But, as I seem to keep saying for each of these characters, the ending of the book should have significant and far reaching ramifications for Mira that will make her a great deal more interesting and rounded as a character in later volumes, rather than simply acting as an alluring, yet aloof love interest for the hero.
The Sheason Vendanj is aided by the novice Sodalist, Braethen. If the Sheason are magical warrior monks who fight demons, the Sodalists appear to be learned warrior monks who use swords to fight demons. Yeah, I am not really sure what the relationship between the two orders is even after reading the book. But Vendanj uses magic, Braethen uses a sword (albeit a magical one). Again, despite this being a fairly lengthy book, there never seemed to be time to delve into Braethen’s character. Sure we are told his backstory a couple of times, but we never get the sense of how this shaped him, how his background made him who he is and helped him choose this path. In part because we have no context for the choice. His father was an Author and Braethen disappointed him by becoming a Sodalist, and his major accomplishment in the novel is finding a necessary passage in a book he once read when his father was training him as an Author. Nope, still don’t get why him being a Sodalist is important or what it even means. And yet, oh how this is getting repetitive, the strange sword, the mystery of what Sodalists are and his burgeoning partnership with Vendanj promise that he could become a great deal more interesting in book two.
Sutter, Tahn’s best friend from home, comes from humble beginnings, provides occasional comic-relief, but seems more to be there to ground Tahn and be a supportive sounding board for him rather than to be a character in his own right or the hero of his own story. Once again, a development late in the story leads to Sutter becoming a great deal more interesting, but the investigation of that development seems destined for later instalments. This feeling of being under-used and unnecessary to this particular part of the story is also true of the young boy, Penit, the stereotypical ‘young rogue’ who was a player in a travelling troupe of actors but whose family were killed. Penit is necessary for part of Wendra’s story more than anything else, and, despite some nice moments, seems wasted in the novel. In fact, he becomes more an object than a character as the novel progresses. In what is now seeming a haunting refrain, the end of the novel does promise interesting developments for Penit in the sequels and his character could suddenly become a lot more interesting and important.
The late addition to the group is Grant, an exiled traitor and former special soldier who takes in abandoned children in a wasteland, training some and placing others with surrogate families. Of all the characters, Grant feels the most rounded. His backstory is explored over the course of the story from a couple of different perspectives, adding detail and nuance that is missing from the other characters’ histories. But, perhaps more importantly, the reader gets to see some of the ramifications of his history, and how it has shaped him and his world view. He is not the usual stereotype of grizzled veteran that one might expect to see in such a traditional quest group line up, as there seems to be a real sense of identity to his character that is a little lacking in the others.
As to be expected there are a few other characters who come into play and although each could possibly be developed further, the same problem seems to exist with all of them. In this story they exist as embryonic characters who have not had the chance to fully develop independent of their role in the plot. They are tools of the narrative, plot functions, story roles given lines. Much of this is due to Orullian pushing plot and story at the expense of letting the characters live through the experience and trusting the reader to be interested in them and not just the events. But through it all, his writing demonstrates that he has a strong conception of who these people are and he clearly has plans to reveal more about them and their struggles.
Despite these complaints, there is real promise in this story, and there are definite signs that further instalments will be better. For a start, the pieces have been laid in this book for political turmoil pitting a powerful, quasi-military order against the main civilian government. There is a suggestion of lots of political intrigue, manoeuvring, and shenanigans to come as the self-appointed guardians of right, The League of Civility, are brought by this book into almost direct conflict with the Regent of Recityv, the Sheason order, and, of course, our heroes. Additionally, while the magical menace of this particular volume seems to use pawns in the form of Orc and Ringwraith analogues, revelations at the end promise a greater diversity of foe, and a more complicated rationale for their attempted conquest and destruction of the human lands. By promising us a war to come on two fronts, one mundane and one magical, Orullian is really raising the stakes and complexity for the later volumes’ story, and therefore, while some of what has occurred in The Unremembered seems well-worn and uninspired it appears that Orullian is using those very aspects as the building blocks for a much greater narrative.
Many of the criticisms I have raised here are a harsh judgement centred around a single, central flaw of the book, and that is an earnest and focused dedication to telling the story rather than showing it. Despite this, there are many moments when it is clear that Orullian has the talent and ability to deliver something greater than the sum of its parts, and some of his writing really sings. But, as a whole, The Unremembered is too busy rushing through plot to let the natural story evolve. If this is taken as the opening act of a play it forms the solid basis for subsequent acts, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on its own.