I was once in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign where the Dungeon Master, a good friend of mine, had grown weary of my bard’s prowess and so decided to try his damnedest to kill him. And so my group eventually ended up inside a large spinning room with a multitude of doors, through which exited a succession of various angry creatures, singly or in large groups. It was fight, momentary rest, fight, momentary rest, fight, mome-, well, you get the idea. That night came back to me while reading Marc Turner’s When the Heavens Fall, which like my group’s experience in that campaign had a good amount of travel, lots of random fighting, and not much character development, though to be honest, I had more fun with the D & D.
The precipitating event in When the Heavens Fall is the theft of a powerful book of sorcery — The Book of Lost Souls, which gives the thief, a renegade mage named Mayot, the power to raise the dead and control them, making him not only a threat to this world but a rival even to Shroud himself, Lord of the Dead. When he sets himself up in the Forest of Sighs and his undead army to attack all nearby, he sets into motion a series of events involving four characters in particular:
- Lukar Essenadar: A Guardian (elite fighters who can use the magic of “The Will”) sent by the Emperor to retrieve the book. Lukar travels with three others, though each may have their own motivations and you certainly wouldn’t call the group “allies.”
- Ebon Calidar: King of Galitia, whose capitol is under siege by Mayot’s undead. Ebon travels with his own group of untrustworthy companions seeking the source of their attackers.
- Romany Elivar: High Priestess of the Spider Goddess, who for her own reasons has sent her agent Romany to assist Mayot in unlocking the secret of the Book, though neither Mayot nor Romany is under any illusion that they are true partners.
- Parolla Morivan: a powerful necromancer seeking a way into Shroud’s realm for her own purposes.
All four seek Mayot’s lair in the Forest and eventually converge there, even as Shroud sends a series of increasingly powerful minions there as well to try and wrest the book from the mage. Lukar and Parolla have to travel some distance, each facing a run of risky encounters along the way. Ebon lives on the edge of the Forest and must deal with a pitched battle at his city’s walls, and then his group has to fight its way through the undead in the forest to reach Mayot’s lair in an old city ruin. Romany, meanwhile, is with Mayot in the city, but uses her magic to lead all those seeking the Book (Shroud’s minions and others seeking the Book’s power) astray, setting them against each other.
As mentioned, that’s a lot of fighting, but mostly to little effect. The whole thing feels very circular and repetitive, and coming in at nearly 600 pages, way, way too long. Lukar’s enemies are given names, but that’s about it — we really have little sense of the internal or external politics that is the source of the hostility. Romany’s scenes, meanwhile, have even less sense of movement or importance; the beings she sets up to fight and die are just pawns to her, of course, but the problem is they feel like pawns to the reader as well. We simply don’t care what happens to them — they’re the epitome of a group of Redshirts. Ebon’s fights are just as repetitive and lack any real tension as most readers (this one at least) had little doubt his group would eventually get to Mayot’s base. Parolla’s journey is the most intriguing and engaging by far, for two reasons. One — her origin and motivation remains a mystery for quite some time, but is clearly complex. The second reason is she picks up a traveling mate who is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel (certainly the most likable and humorous, though Ebon’s mage Mallot might give him a run).
Internal tensions are mostly as surface and removed as the external ones. Lukar’s traveling companions — a military man sworn to the Emperor, one of the Emperor’s mages, and an assassin named Jenna — are meant to make us worry, but the first two are, again, given little characterization beyond their names and roles, while it’s clear from the very start that Jenna and Lukar have less conflict tension and more romantic tension. Nobody will be surprised by where that goes. Ebon’s internal tension involves the ruler of another country which Ebon’s nation is on the edge of war with, but again, the character himself has little sense of personality and feels more like a simple prop. The same holds true for Mayot, who is perhaps the ultimate prop, with no sense of a personality or any sort of past. Only Romany’s comic sense of haughty entitlement (demanding an undead servant for instance) brings any life to the scenes in the forest.
The prose is mostly pedestrian: not bad, but it doesn’t do much save move the story along (my one complaint is how often Turner uses the phrase “he rolled his shoulders” — a noticeable writer’s tic an editor certainly should have caught and dealt with).
By the end, a few characters have some decent moments (Lukar fighting his old mentor, now an undead slave for instance), but it’s a case of too little too late. And with the resolution, it’s hard not to feel a bit of “all that for this?”
When the Heavens Fall is the first book in the series — CHRONICLES OF THE EXILE — but I’m hard pressed to recommend starting the series based on book one. I’m not ready to completely write it off — there are flashes of potential here — but I’d say hold off until your friendly reviewer gets a look at book two and sees if there is any improvement.
Oh, and that D & D campaign? My bard survived. Turns out my DM friend hadn’t counted on us using the corpses of our kills to construct walls, ramparts, and killing channels. When he used that dungeon later with another group, though, he had the bodies magically disappear upon being killed. Creative people do learn.
When the Heavens Fall is a wonderful initial novel by Marc Turner. I have found that many blockbuster first installment novels have disappointed lately, but Turner does an outstanding job of weaving many different storylines into threads in a heady, action-packed tapestry.
There are four or five different storylines that readers are asked to follow as When the Heavens Fall gets going. The first is Luker Essendar a proto-typical fallen hero of sorts. Luker is a Guardian, a military order of sorts, who has lost his way and become disillusioned. He returns to the home of his order to find things in disarray and political leadership holding the reins to his orders leadership. He is asked to participate in a quest of sorts to find a stolen artifact. It’s common stuff for a Fantasy book, but instead of everyone being happy to work together, it’s quite the opposite and trust is sparse. The only interesting part is a female assassin, who Luker has worked with in the past, and her unexpected inclusion into the crew. There is history there and it makes for interesting reading.
The second storyline involves the high priestess of one of the pantheon of gods/goddesses. Romany Elivar is a corpulent hedonist who uses her position to maximize her own comfort and works at the behest of her goddess only when pressed. She’s a mistress of manipulation and very skilled in sorcery. Her goddess has tasked her to become involved with this stolen artifact as well, and to use her talents to create as much difficulty for another god for whom this artifact is a threat.
The third storyline follows the young heir to the throne of Galitia, Ebon Calidar. He’s a noble, well-intentioned young man who has been impaired and possessed by a host of undead spirits. Exactly how this happened is not clear, but the side-effects left him deeply disturbed for a long time. Ebon is doing his best to prepare to take the mantle of the monarch of his country when he is broadsided by a negative conflagration of events — a delegation visiting from a much more powerful neighboring country with perceived hostile intent, his father’s failing health, political plotting, and disloyalty from members of his own family.
The fourth storyline tracks Parolla Moriva. Her mother died from intimate contact with the God of death and she is seeking answers to why he let that happen. Her burgeoning powers come at a cost of feeling less mortal, less human, and so she seeks to exercise restraint even while making a perilous trek that begins to point to the stolen artifact as well.
Turner does a good job of keeping the characters distinct in When the Heavens Fall. They are each motivated by very different things, but the ultimate destination is a confrontation over who will possess this object of power. I enjoyed the journey and find the conclusion satisfying even while Turner left the door open for additional installments. That’s hard to do.
The Chronicles of the Exile — (2015-2016) If you pick a fight with Shroud, Lord of the Dead, you had better ensure your victory, else death will mark only the beginning of your suffering. A book giving its wielder power over the dead has been stolen from a fellowship of mages that has kept the powerful relic dormant for centuries. The thief, a crafty, power-hungry necromancer, intends to use the Book of Lost Souls to resurrect an ancient race and challenge Shroud for dominion of the underworld. Shroud counters by sending his most formidable servants to seize the artifact at all cost. However, the god is not the only one interested in the Book, and a host of other forces converge, drawn by the powerful magic that has been unleashed. Among them is a reluctant Guardian who is commissioned by the Emperor to find the stolen Book, a troubled prince who battles enemies both personal and political, and a young girl of great power, whose past uniquely prepares her for an encounter with Shroud. The greatest threat to each of their quests lies not in the horror of an undead army but in the risk of betrayal from those closest to them. Each of their decisions comes at a personal cost and will not only affect them, but also determine the fate of their entire empire. The first of an epic swords & sorcery fantasy trilogy, Marc Turner’s When the Heavens Fall features gritty characters, deadly magic, and meddlesome gods.