Review: Trial of Intentions (Vault of Heaven Book 2) by Peter Orullian

Trial of Intentions

 

Short Version:

An epic fantasy that plays with genre tropes, but not always in the way you expect.  Fantastic worldbuilding that includes a fascinating magic system that permeates the world and its sciences, interesting plot choices that cater to but nor are beholden to classic fantasy storytelling, and a Book 2 that can act as a book 1 for new readers.  It is a massive improvement from The Unremembered.  A book to read.

 

Longer Review:

When I am wrong, I am happy to admit it.  Ok, so happy is probably the wrong word.  Grudgingly.  Yes, when I am wrong, I grudgingly admit it.  I went into reading this book with some trepidation.  The first book, The Unremembered, contained hints of a greater story, intimations of fantastic ideas, and it suggested that the author had the best of intentions with the story he was telling.  But, as my earlier review of it suggests, I was less than impressed with the execution, in fact I was pretty damning.  However, those hints of depth, the small elements of creativity, and the chance that some of those things could come to fruition made me try the second book.  When I started reading Trial of Intentions my first thought was ‘Is this the same author of The Unremembered?’  The setting was the same, the characters had the same names, and the threats in the world were the same… but the writing was better, the character development was better, the focus of the story was better, the plot was more interesting, the world was more sharply realised, and it no longer seemed stereotypical or trite.  So, let me (grudgingly) say that I was wrong.  This is a book worth reading.  This is a series worth reading.  And Peter Orullian is an author worth paying attention to.

 

Trial of Intentions begins shortly after the climactic events at the end of The Unremembered, so the characters are in the midst of processing what exactly has happened to them, what it means for the world, and wondering where they go from here.  Given the severity of the confrontation at the end of Unremembered there are devastating ramifications for each of the characters.  They have been changed, but don’t yet understand how and this is very good for the story.  This functions as an initial re-introduction of Tahn, Mira, Sutter, Wendra, Vendanj, and Braethan that very briefly recaps what has happened to them and highlights just how their characters have been altered by events and begins to address what this means for them as well as suggesting avenues for character development.  But before it descends into tedious character introspection and exposition it is nipped in the bud at the best moment and action descends in the form of a fairly epic battle.  But make no mistake, Orullian never forgets about the character elements, he now just works them into the action and story so the reader can see their characters develop and not simply be told that the characters have developed.  Oddly enough, this habit of alluding to previous events while actively engaged in new ones, adds depth to the story and a sense of history to the narrative and it is something that Orullian never loses sight of.  This results in Trials actually functioning as an entry point into the series and renders The Unremembered as slightly superfluous.  But the upshot is that we are presented with characters who are now much more interestingly constructed, who are trying to work through complex and powerful emotions, who are active participants in the grand narrative, as well as their own personal stories, and who have no time for navel gazing as the fate of the world is at stake and the barbarians are at the gate.

Speaking of the barbarians.  One of my great dissatisfactions with Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings is the lack of voice given to the Orcs.  The brief glimpses we have of their culture, lives, and perspective, are vastly overshadowed by the power of the heroic narrative.  They are generally just brutal, monstrous enemies that are irredeemably evil and need to be destroyed without compunction or pity.  Orullian directly challenges this stereotypical position of demonising the enemy into a monstrous voiceless other and gives a series of POV chapters to one of the residents behind the Vale in the land of the Quiet.  Kett, the Inveterae, is a member of one of the many races that are imprisoned in the Bourne.  The short chapters dealing with his story add a great deal of depth and complexity to the conflict and emphasise the ‘two sides to every story’ adage.  While this is just one POV among many, it is refreshing to see that the world of ‘the enemy’ is as complex and as contradictory as that of the ‘allies’.  The introduction of Kett and the world behind the Vale also gives the story more balance in terms of what is coming and is a very welcome addition to the story.  The threat of invasion is that much more real and powerful because the reader witnesses the preparations and begins to get some insight into what motivates the Quiet.  Without this the enemy would remain a shambling horde of monsters and vague threat who, despite the effort Orullian has made to ensure they are distinct from Orcs and Trolls, would just be standard fantasy hero-fodder.

Of my many complaints about the first novel, it appears that Orullian has already anticipated them because most of my questions and areas of criticism have been roundly and solidly addressed in this story.  Where Unremembered was solely focused on Tahn’s quest, blindly followed Vendanj around on an extremely linear travelogue, and had the hero-centric narrative that has become stereotypical in the genre, this volume has a truly ensemble cast and presents a variety of story type.  Each of the characters now feels a great deal more rounded and has their own motivations for their actions, as well as exhibiting more complex emotions.  But more than that, the characters now feel active instead of passive.  They are executing plans.  They are attempting multiple approaches to solving the problem.  They are engaging in their own stories.  And each of those stories, while part of the greater narrative, is relevant, interesting, and distinct.

The orders of the Sheason and the Sodalists are finally explored and explained and Orullian works these facets of the story into the broader narrative so that they don’t feel like asides or expositionary lumps.  The events and crises in both the orders, especially the investigation of the Sheason order, from various perspectives, is one of the real pleasures of the book.  In particular, the view of Thaelon, as both the leader of the Sheason and the more private view of him as a father, is genuinely engaging and interesting.  Seeing his relationship with his daughter, and with the various other Sheason, adds depth and definition to both him and the order, making the entire concept and organisation that much more believable.  Seeing the schism within their ranks and how it affects him as well as the others gains a great deal more potency and emotional resonance as a result of this.  In terms of the wider story being told, the decisions made, with the best of intentions [pun intended], end up having severe ramifications for the conflict to come, as well as provide engaging exposition for the magic system and raising interesting questions about morality and order.

As with the rest of the book, the events actually affect the characters deeply instead of the characters merely paying lip-service to what has happened and carrying on as the narrative dictates.  Orullian presents characters being shaped and changed by what they see and experience and this makes them more rounded, understandable and relatable.  Due to their flaws, their decisions, good and bad, they come across as ordinary people trying to do their best in the most desperate of circumstances.  In other words, we can believe in them as people, not just characters or narrative functions.  This also results in both the micro- and macro-level of storytelling feeling more real, feeling more authentic, and giving the narrative a cohesive weight.

The conflict within the Sheason order is actually directly related to the events in Recityv and the politics of the city and the political storyline really comes alive in this volume and forms the major thrust of the book.  Set in Recityv and focused on the Convocation of nations, it blends the political manoeuvrings of the city from the perspectives of both Roth and Helaina with the stories and perspectives of the Sheason Vendanj, the Sodalist Braethan, the exile Grant, and even finds purchase in the magical, musical training storyline of Wendra in the Descant Cathedral.  Of all the plot threads that run through the story, this was the one that both captured my interest as well as slightly frustrated me.

On the positive side, Orullian demonstrates some great character writing.  Roth, the primary antagonist of this volume is a real piece of work.  He is despicable, arrogant, self-serving, ambitious, fervent, and fanatical, and yet, Orullian gives the reader insight into what actually motivates this man.  Roth could easily have become a caricature of an overly-melodramatic villain with moustache twirling plans, but what makes him truly fascinating and horrifying is his steadfast conviction that he is in the right.  Even more worrying is that some of his arguments and reasons sound eminently reasonable.  He is no frothing at the mouth mad-man, but a calculating and passionate advocate for a particular world view.  Orullian managed to create a character compelling enough to hold my interest, fascinate me, and, at the same time, make me want to stab him… in the face… with a saw-blade… repeatedly… So as a villain he is compelling, has depth and understandable motivation, and wants to save the world from what he sees are its faults.  The fact that those are the very things actually protecting the world puts him clearly in the villain camp, but we can understand why he acts the way he does.  Like Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards (2013-) he is someone whom you love to hate, but whom you can almost admire.

Helaina, on the other side of the political conflict, is also another character who grows leaps and bounds in this story.  She is very much the mirror of Roth.  He came from the streets, she was a child in a wealthy merchant family.  He is a fanatic who will sacrifice anyone to achieve his ends, she is a moderate who wants to work with people to bring them around to her way of thinking.  Yet both want what they see as best for the people, they are both willing to do what is necessary, even if it isn’t the most popular decision, and they are both convinced that their way is the right way.  Just like Roth, she has a vision for a better world.  Unfortunately for her, Roth’s vision and her own are entirely incompatible and are mutually exclusive.  Because of the constant opposition from the League of Civility she is struggling to hold the city, the land, and the world together in the face of an impending invasion from magical creatures and is in danger of losing everything to Roth before the Quiet even invade.  Her allies, the Sheason and the Descant, are directly threatened by the League.  Potential political allies are being manipulated or threatened.  She is beset on all sides yet displays enormous strength of will under the trying circumstances.

The back and forth between Roth and Helaina is fantastic to read, but… and there is an unfortunate but here… but, Orullian seems far too fond of Roth and lets the narrative become a little too contrived in order to keep Roth alive and important as an antagonist.  No matter what he does, no matter how despicable the act, and no matter how many times characters come into direct confrontation with Roth, no one ever seizes the opportunity to kill him.  He is built up to be the sole voice of the Civilisation movement, and not once do any of the heroes really try to take him out.  All of the conflicts result in Roth walking away, only to reappear about a chapter later and do the same things again.  Not only that, but he appears in almost every single League plan and important scene.  For the leader of a huge organisation that spans countries, he doesn’t seem capable of delegating at all well.  At times, despite being told how large the League is, you get a sense it is just Roth, a few friends, and a random collection of nameless foot-soldiers.  It also becomes a trifle frustrating that he can clearly engage in treachery, treason, murder, arson, blackmail and a host of other offences, but that even in the midst of chaotic insurrection the heroes fail to kill him.  It ends up feeling a little too neat.  A little too artificial and forced.  This is truly unfortunate given the strong elements of authenticity that Orullian has worked into the rest of the story and the world.  But it should be said that the vast majority of the Recityv storylines are fascinating and compelling reading.

Also in Recityv is Wendra’s story, mostly located in the Descant Cathedral.  While the Sheason practice a form of magic called rendering the will, Wendra is a Leiholan, a person with the ability to create magical effects with her singing.  While magical music is not exactly new, Orullian gives it passion, power and persuasiveness through his prose.  A guiding concept of resonance flows through the book and magic system, and goes to the core of the interpersonal relationships in the novel, and the fact that we are all shaped by our encounters with other people.  Wendra’s raw song, shaped by pain, betrayal and loss, is evocatively rendered on the page and like her character, it evolves and changes over the course of the story.  Once again, Orullian gives his characters the ability to be shaped by their experiences and we see this clearly in Wendra’s decisions, which might be right for her, but not necessarily right for the rest of the world.  Wendra is no longer the captive in need of rescue, and she is increasingly the commanding figure at the centre of the story.

Her interactions with Belamae, the Maesteri of the Descant, and her lessons in magic and music theory are a welcome change of pace and tone from the political storyline, and give the reader a more comprehensive understanding of what is at stake here, as well as how the magic actually works.  While Belamae is something of the kind, avuncular mentor, commonly found in fantasy, even he has a past and has made mistakes which round out his character and make him more than the magical maestro Dumbledore to Wendra’s Potter.  What is also nice to see is that despite the fact that Wendra has this incredible magical talent, she still needs lessons and practice in order to use it.  Mozart may have been a musical prodigy, but he still needed to learn how to read and write sheet music.  Wendra demonstrates time and again over the course of the story that she has raw power, but like the Sheason storyline and the themes of the political plot, her story asks questions about how, why, and when power should be wielded.  It asks the reader to consider the interaction of personal judgement, societal benefit, concepts of right and wrong.  It asks about intentions.  Orullian isn’t afraid to show his characters making mistakes, or to show heroes doing something morally questionable, just as he isn’t afraid of showing us the ramifications of this, the personal and wider cost, but he also ensures that all these aspects resonate and echo with one another.  There is a underlying tone and theme to the entire novel and this complexity and depth adds a significant richness to the entire endeavour.

Sutter and Mira probably have the least imaginative storyline presented, and one that feels more like a minor thread to the main political story.  In effect it is a fantasy travelogue to secure allies that visits two locales that may seem a bit familiar to fantasy fans.  The peaceful, hidden garden-like home of the Laeodalin (who are definitely not Elves because they don’t have pointy ears) and Ir-Caul, the home of the Smith King (who is definitely not a Dwarven king obsessed with being a blacksmith because he is tall).  But even here Orullian ensures that there are personal motivations and ramifications for their actions, and gives their scenes a sense of intimacy and truth.  Mira and Sutter have a chance to start to develop on their own, away from the burden of Tahn’s storyline, and away from the more commanding presence of Vendanj.  Of the two, Sutter gets more time to develop as a character while Mira still has things happen to her.  On a minor note, I found the incidents in Ir-Caul to be a little straining of incredulity and smacking of narrative convenience.  Some of that is expected in fantasy writing, and to be honest, occurs in lots of other books, fantasy or otherwise.  I am not going to castigate an author for the same sin that so many others are equally, if not more, guilty of, but it was still a little annoying that the entire conspiracy unravelling hinged on happenstance, incredible strokes of luck, unlooked for information from random characters, and a slightly trite romance story.  But, it was still an engaging story and it kept me reading.

The last major plot thread belongs to Tahn himself.  On the one hand I admire Orullian’s choice to place Tahn on a quest not to defeat evil, nor find a weapon to destroy the invading army, but to find a way to stop the war from even starting.  So rather than trying to defeat the enemy, Tahn seeks a way to stop them becoming an enemy.  I also admire that this ‘quest’ occurs in Aubade Grove, the fantasy equivalent of MIT and Harvard.  That’s right ladies and gents, Tahn goes to university to essentially research and give a PhD defence to a bunch of academics who may or may not have been infiltrated by agents of the Quiet.  It is a bold decision and was very interesting, but, unfortunately I am perhaps a little prejudiced about this storyline because of my background in academia.  This is no fault of Orillian’s, but knowing what academics are like, and understanding the process of a PhD viva made Tahn’s plan of action seem ludicrous in my eyes.  Plus, his new found aptitude for physics, mathematics, astronomy, rhetoric, and philosophy, while explained, just stretched my suspension of disbelief too far.  Despite this, it is an engaging storyline and illustrates just how full and deep the world of the story is.  Orullian links the magic with science and expresses it in a fairly convincing way.

All in all, Trial of Intentions is a great book.  It has everything that fans of fantasy clamour for, and some things they didn’t know they wanted.  If you like epic fantasy, or quest fantasy, if you like fallible heroes and interesting villains, then this book is worth a read.  I know that I will be anxiously awaiting the next book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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