FORMAT/INFO: The Unremembered is 672 pages long divided over a Prologue and 80 titled chapters. Also includes a detailed map, which is available online HERE. Narration is in the third person via Tahn Junell; his sister Wendra; Tahn’s friend Sutter Te Polis; Braethen Posian; Helaina Storalaith, the regent of Recityv; the Sheason Vendanj; the Far Mira; a highwayman; and the sun-worn outcast. The Unremembered is the first volume in The Vault of Heaven fantasy series. April 12, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of The Unremembered via Tor. Cover art is provided by Kekai Kotaki.
ANALYSIS: Tor is one of my favorite publishers, especially when it comes to fantasy. Because of Tor, I’ve been introduced to a number of my favorite authors in the genre including Robert Jordan, Jacqueline Carey, Glen Cook, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Farland, Elizabeth Haydon and newcomers in Brandon Sanderson, Daniel Abraham and Ken Scholes. As a result, Tor has my full attention whenever the publisher introduces a new fantasy author. Their latest discovery is Peter Orullian.
Peter Orullian is the author of The Unremembered, a traditional epic fantasy novel that immediately brought to mind Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings because of the familiar quest storyline and the classic battle between good and evil. Because of philosophical musings,thought-provoking moral complexity and the overall serious tone of the book, I was also reminded of The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind and Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles. Unfortunately, thoughts of inferior fantasy works like The Wanderer’s Tale by David Bilsborough, Russell Kirkpatrick’s Across the Face of the World and Goodkind’s more recent novels also popped into my head as I was reading The Unremembered. This disparity in comparisons represents the novel as a whole, since nearly every aspect of The Unremembered is marked by elements both positive and negative.
Take for example Peter Orullian’s writing which is confident and skilled, led by the author’s facility for descriptive prose and heroic storytelling:
Before our fires, before the sun, the Great Fathers held their Council of Creation at the Tabernacle of the Sky. They called forth the light, the land, and filled both with life. Every living thing was intended to grow in stature and harmony with the elements around it.
And this all was done for the good of everyone. But in their wisdom, the First Ones knew there must be counterbalance, a way for their creation to be tested and challenged. Else no learning or change could occur, and their council would bring to naught their intention: that we should become great ourselves. So, one of the fathers was given the charge to create all that would be ill to the land and its life. To one was given the task of creating sorrow and strife.
For a time, the council served with great joy. Sound and song filled the land with vibrance, attending the creation of every living thing. But the One grew delighted in his charge to test men by affliction. He set upon the lands pricks and briars of every sort, creatures without conscience, to harrow the creations of light. Thousands of years did the council serve, the One becoming dark in his soul, consumed with his task.
The Great Fathers knew the One must be bound, else men were lost. So, together they sealed him to the earth that he so wanted to destroy, creating for him a sepulchre in the farthest corner of the world to live an eternity in his rancor. And thus the High Season came to an end; the time of creation, of newness at the hands of the Noble Ones, passed from memory.
But by the time the One had been bound, balance had been undone. The land had gone awry of the Great Father’s plan from the foundation, and they could not hope to salvage their vision. So they abandoned their work, sealing those given to the Quiet within the Bourne and leaving the unfinished world to mete out its own fate. And many scornful races there were who had, indeed, given their very souls to Quietus’s hateful designs. So, into the land the First Ones introduced the Sheason, an order ordained to establishing peace and equanimity, set apart to guide the other races throughout the rest of Aeshau Vaal.
At the same time though, Peter Orullian’s writing is marred by dialogue that occasionally feels forced and the author’s penchant for verbosity, especially when describing architecture or the landscape, or when expressing the thoughts and reflections of a character.
World-building meanwhile, is rich and immersive, highlighted by the obvious amount of time and love that was put into creating Aeshau Vaal. Sadly, while the world of The Unremembered may be full of detailed history, mythology, culture and geography, it is sorely lacking in the creativity department. The magical Veil which imprisons the evil Quietus and his followers in the Bourne; Sheason who render the Will at the cost of their own Forda I’Forza — energy and matter, or body and soul; Sodalists, sworn protectors of the Sheason; Bar’dyn, Velle and the Draethemorte; the League of Civility, an order dedicated to rooting out “arcane beliefs and practices”; the Sedagin warrior race; the magical Eternal Grove which stands at the edge of creation; songs used to both create and destroy… these and many other concepts introduced in The Unremembered could be replaced by ideas found in other fantasy novels — The Forbidding, Shai’tan, Trollocs, Myrddraal/Nazgûl, Warders, Singers/Spellsongs, etc. — and readers would hardly be able to tell the difference. That’s how unoriginal Aeshau Vaal is. Granted, there are exceptions like the Far — people “blessed with quickness in the body”, but whose lives end naturally at the end of eighteen cycles, the age of accountability — the Lesher Roon race, and the Undying Vow: “to bind husband and wife together for all time, to eternally sanction their union and ensure their happiness beyond the dust.” I also found the idea of a world abandoned by its creators intriguing, but for the most part, Aeshau Vaal is a fantasy world that will be instantly recognizable to anyone remotely familiar with the genre.
The same can also be said for the story, which is basically a very long and familiar quest, with the novel starting off in a small and unassuming town called the Hollows, and eventually ending at their destination at the Heights of Restoration. During this journey, the party travels to many interesting places — Widow’s Village, Qum’rahm’se Library, Stonemount, Recityv, the Scarred Lands, Naltus Far, Saeculorum Mountains, Rudierd Tillinghast — and end up dealing with numerous problems like the party becoming separated and overcoming obstacles that test their resolve, all while being constantly pursued by Quietgiven. There are a few subplots that help break up the story’s familiarity including Recityv politics, a highwayman who specializes in slave trade, and the sun-worn exile sentenced to care for orphans, but only a few short chapters are dedicated to the regent of Recityv, the highwayman disappears altogether about two-thirds of the way through the novel, and the outcast becomes less interesting once he joins the rest of the party. To make matters worse, the story’s pacing is hindered by frequent info-dumping, bloated descriptions, and a large amount of philosophizing and thoughtful ruminations on the part of the characters. As a result, not only is the plot in The Unremembered unoriginal and predictable, it’s also lengthy, slow-moving, and downright boring at times. It’s not all negative though. There are some truly exciting moments in the book, especially when the party gets separated and embark on different adventures, while compelling reading can be found in the subplot involving Tahn and the Court of Judicature, and the re-enactment of the outcast’s crime.
Like the plot, the characters in The Unremembered are stereotypical of the genre, with Tahn Junell a prime example. Tahn is essentially the ‘chosen one,’ a youth not yet fully come of age, haunted by mysteries like his forgotten past — hecannot remember anything before his tenth cycle — the hammer-shaped scar on his hand, his dreams of a faceless man, the voice he sometimes hears when viewing the sunrise, and the words he is compelled to speak every time he draws his bow: “I pull with the strength of my arms, but release as the Will allows.” The other main characters do not fare much better. Sutter is a root-digger who yearns for adventure, while providing comic relief; Braethen Posian is a lifelong scholar who finally gets to pursue his dream of Sodality, a life he has only read about in books; Tahn’s sister Wendra is haunted by the recent loss of her child and possesses a hidden gift; Vendanj is the hardened warrior/sorcerer, full of secrets and regrets; and Mira is Tahn’s romantic interest, although she also faces a terrible dilemma because of her Far heritage. Apart from being archetypal, Peter Orullian’s characters also suffer from paper-thin personalities which makes them difficult to care about, shallow character development, and unconvincing relationships — Tahn and Wendra, Tahn and Mira, Mira and Vendanj, Vendanj and Braethen, Sutter’s feelings for Wendra, etc. — which dampens some of the novel’s more interesting drama. On the plus side, the internal conflicts and themes — morality, rape, loss, abandonment, guilt, anger, disappointment, friendship, accountability — Peter Orullian’s characters have to deal with are deep, thought-provoking and compelling.
Minor narratives include Helaina Storalaith, the highwayman Jastail J’Vache, and Grant, the sun-weathered exile, while the supporting cast features some interesting characters I hope return for the sequels like the ten-year-old boy Penit; Col’Wrent, the Lul’Masi Inveterae — the unredeemed; Edholm Restultan, the scrivener of Qum’rahm’se Library; the Ta’Opin Seanbea; the prisoner Rolen; and Belamae, the Maesteri of Descant Cathedral. Out of all of the characters in the book, Wendra is surprisingly the most fascinating. Because of her damaged relationship with Tahn and the unique ability she possesses, Wendra is a key factor in determining mankind’s success or failure in future volumes. Other characters to watch include Sutter with his unwanted ability to see the untabernacled, and Mira because of the consequences she faces due to the choices she made in The Unremembered.
CONCLUSION: Many of the authors Tor has introduced over the years have gone on to become mainstays of the genre, while others are exciting new voices. Unfortunately, the verdict on Peter Orullian is still pending. While the author shows tremendous potential in The Unremembered — specifically a confident writing style highlighted by rich prose, comprehensive world-building, characters who realistically struggle internally, and an obvious passion for the genre — the novel’s overwhelming use of fantasy tropes and conventions is a major drawback. As a result, many of the book’s positive moments are canceled out by negative ones, culminating in a debut that is neither great nor terrible, but instead falls somewhere in between. Still, if Peter Orullian can build on his strengths, while tightening up his writing and making a more concerted effort at forging his own identity, then the author could eventually become a force to reckon with.
I see two possible readings of Peter Orullian’s new novel, The Unremembered. It is either one of the weakest, most unoriginal fantasy novels I’ve picked up in the past year, or it is a valiant effort that went poorly executed. Neither is all that encouraging, but one at least holds out some hope for the second novel.
A brief summary of the plot will suffice to reveal the issue. At the creation of the world, one of the gods charged with keeping balance by creating, to use a general term, “troubles” or “evils” in the world (sharp cacti, poisonous snakes, fearsome creatures, etc.) goes too far, seems to take too much joy in creating such things. His focus, according to his peers, is too much on “subjugation, imposition, domination.” For this he is “whited” and he and his “vile creatures” bound behind the “veil” in the “Bourne.” Twice the creatures have broken out and each time an alliance formed to force them back. Now, the veil is weakening again and once more dark creatures of near-forgotten myth wander the lands. In a protected area called the Hollows, a gruff, taciturn and mysterious Sheason (someone who can manipulate The Will, i.e. perform magic) and his mysterious, lithe female companion (a Far, also thought by some to be only legend) appear to warn two young friends — Tahn and Sutter — that the Bourne creatures seek Tahn and so the two must leave or put all the Hollows at risk. Tahn knows something is odd about himself; he can’t remember his childhood, and every time he draws his bow he is compelled to say something about the Will. As they prepare to leave, Tahn’s sister (about to give birth to a child of rape) is attacked by a Bourne creature who delivers and then steals her stillborn baby. The group is joined by another of Tahn’s friends, Braethen, who wants to be a Sodalist (one who bonds himself to a Sheason and defends them). They are led by the Sheason Vendanj toward a major city (why, Vendanj won’t reveal) but are eventually separated and must attempt to make their own ways to Recityv. As they struggle to do so, the Regent of Recityv calls for another Grand Convocation (to start the process toward a new alliance) but is dogged at every move by a political group known as the League of Civility, a group that has steadily gained power in the lands and has managed to outlaw the use of the Will and has also been arresting and killing Sheason and those who help them.
There is obviously more to the plot, but one can already see the problem. A protected area, a dark lord and his vile creatures “sealed” away, the seal weakening, the dark lord rising, faded alliances, mysterious taciturn warriors, lithe creatures, callow youths who are “special,” songs as magic, special birthmarks, swords blazing white in the presence of evil, adopted children who learn their true history, a leader besieged by factions, a blighted area (we’ll call it “scarred” here), evil creatures that one could easily rename Fades or Trollocs, even an Ogier type, and so on: we’ve seen all of these a million times. Worse, we’ve seen almost exact copies of nearly all of these in THE WHEEL OF TIME (there is, for instance, a dead abandoned city haunted by an evil.) I can only name two books that I felt had as much lack of originality: The Sword of Shannara and Eragon.
Which of course, raises the question: is Orullian truly this unoriginal, or does the sheer quantity of not only cliché but spot-on imitation hint that he’s trying to do something else? If it is the former, then the book is, bluntly, terrible simply for that reason. If the latter, then the book is still not good (for this and other reasons) but more flawed than terrible, with some small chance of redemption to come. The problem is if it is the latter, then what is being done with the clichés doesn’t happen soon enough. In fact, I’d say it doesn’t happen much at all (save for a bit toward the very, very end) and so we get 600+ pages of near-complete cliché, leaving the reader to take on faith that book two will perhaps overturn these clichés, turn them somehow to sparkling new use and thus make the first book’s read worth it. I have to say, to be honest, even if the clichés get overturned, I’m not sure Orullian can get me back. As a reviewer I’ll give him that chance in the next book; but as a reader only, I would have stopped this one about 30-50 pages in and not considered the second book at all.
Beyond the lack of originality (and to give Orullian credit, there are some original creative bits, just not close to enough of them), the writing doesn’t stand out. The characterization is relatively weak. I can’t say any of the characters change all that much, nor is much more revealed about them by the end that one couldn’t see or predict within the first few dozen pages. The relationships are particularly hard to buy, all of them seeming too forced. Tahn and Sutter’s banter is perhaps the best part of the characterization, but their “hi-jinks” much less so; it tries too hard to show them as friends. Tahn’s attraction to Mira, the Far woman, happens far too immediately as does hers to him and never feels real. Sutter’s alleged love for Tahn’s sister Wendra is even less believable because it comes up almost exclusively in conversation, rather than in deed or thought. For instance, much is made of Sutter’s desire to leave the Hollows, but is he planning on taking Wendra? When the town is attacked, Tahn thinks immediately of protecting Wendra but we get no sense that Sutter does. And he seems perfectly fine with being separated from her when that happens. This is true for pretty much all the interpersonal relationships we’re shown, no matter the type. They rarely feel true or natural or established — they feel like lines drawn on a character chart. Wendra has her moments due to the loss of her child, but sometimes one can easily forget she was raped or lost a child and other times, again, Orullian tries a bit too hard with the lost child. The balance just isn’t there yet.
The pace is also very uneven. Part of the problem, I think, is that the book is going to feel slow simply due to the lack of freshness. And I’ll admit Orullian suffers a bit in that I read this immediately after reading Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path, which will probably appear on my top favorites of the year, and while I’m rereading Steven Erikson’s Malazan series — which I consider one of the best series of the past 20 years. That said, I found myself often having to struggle through the plot. The travel was slow, some events just didn’t pay off, and too often the plot was interrupted by small narratives (legends, stories, songs) that were a bit repetitive, contrived, or felt too much like a necessary info dump. I’d say a good 250 pages should have been lopped off at least, aiming for a sub-400 page book.
The plot itself never once captured my interest. I will say, however, that a few of the characters piqued my interest somewhat more in the last 50 pages or so: Sutter picked up a new ability which could deepen his character (though still a cliché issue: I’ll just say “Min”) and Wendra has a reason to have issues with her brother that could grow interesting. There is also a highwayman who is played again a bit too hard but has potential, and a few other very, very side characters who actually seemed as if they might be more interesting than the main characters. Actually, while writing that I realized that they were more interesting, even if we only saw them for a few pages.
I don’t usually write such a long bad review, thinking there’s no reason to rub things in. But the sheer prevalence of the clichés in the book leads me to think (perhaps it’s my natural optimism) that Orullian is trying for something here and just hasn’t gotten there (at least yet). So I don’t want to do him the disservice of simply dismissing this as a bad book. As it is, I certainly can’t recommend it, but I’ll give the sequel a shot and let you know if The Unremembered is redeemed. It’ll take a lot more originality, better characterization, and much tighter pacing, but I’ve seen lots of authors improve in the latter two areas from book one to book two; we’ll see about the first area.
The Vault of Heaven — (2011-2015) Publisher: The gods, makers of worlds, seek to create balance — between matter and energy; and between mortals who strive toward the transcendent, and the natural perils they must tame or overcome. But one of the gods fashions a world filled with hellish creatures far too powerful to allow balance; he is condemned to live for eternity with his most hateful creations in that world’s distant Bourne, restrained by a magical veil kept vital by the power of song. Millennia pass, awareness of the hidden danger fades to legend, and both song and veil weaken. And the most remote cities are laid waste by fell, nightmarish troops escaped from the Bourne. Some people dismiss the attacks as mere rumor. Instead of standing against the real threat, they persecute those with the knowledge, magic and power to fight these abominations, denying the inevitability of war and annihilation. And the evil from the Bourne swells… The troubles of the world seem far from the Hollows where Tahn Junell struggles to remember his lost childhood and to understand words he feels compelled to utter each time he draws his bow. Trouble arrives when two strangers — an enigmatic man wearing the sigil of the feared Order of Sheason and a beautiful woman of the legendary Far — come, to take Tahn, his sister and his two best friends on a dangerous, secret journey. Tahn knows neither why nor where they will go. He knows only that terrible forces have been unleashed upon mankind and he has been called to stand up and face that which most daunts him — his own forgotten secrets and the darkness that would destroy him and his world.