"I draw with the strength of my arms, but release as the Will allows"
Choice and consequences lie heavy freight on The Unremembered, the debut novel by fantasy author Peter Orullian.
Sometimes, epic fantasy is all that will do for a reader of speculative fiction, and so I turned to reading this eagerly, hoping to quench that recurring thirst and need. for epic fantasy that builds a secondary world peopled with characters, lands, creatures and magic that provide escapism and escape in equal portions. The marketing plans, as mentioned on the ARC of the book I received and elsewhere, clearly point to a big push to make Peter Orullian the next big thing in epic fantasy. With the field of fantasy tilting more and more to things like Urban Fantasy, Steampunk and other subgenres, the field of Epic Fantasy is wide open. Sure, Brandon Sanderson is attempting to fill the late Robert Jordan's shoes. George R R Martin has been glacially slow in putting out his books (with the promise, as of the writing of this review/reaction that the 5th book will finally come out in Summer 2011). Elizabeth Moon has returned to the work of Paksenarrion. Other voices have tried to get a kingdom or duchy in the realm of Epic Fantasy, too, but there is plenty of lebensraum. with fantasy writers flocking to other pastures.
So there is room for Orullian to make a play to get into the field and claim a kingdom for himself. How did he do with that in The Unremembered? This is what I found.
The world of the Unremembered reminds me a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay's world of Fionavar, or Robert Jordan's world. We get a prologue of Gods at the beginning of the world, when one of their number, deemed evil, is imprisoned in a portion of the world they have built, along with his foul creations. Ostensibly isolated from man and the other works they have made, the Gods, satisfied by the binding of one of their number and his works, abandon the world, to go on to make another, as they apparently have done many times.
Leaving a God imprisoned on a world with his foul creations is, in a very real sense, an Original Sin, and the consequences of that Original Sin, by the creator gods themselves, haunts the world of the Unremembered.
After this portent-freighted prologue, we shift to a pastoral setting, the Hollows, that is reminiscent, perhaps too much so, of Hobbiton, and Edmond's Field. A pastoral setting, where a young man, not yet an adult, is ignorant of the power and ability he truly wields, power that draws forces of the evil Whited One and his opponents alike to the backwater village. Tahn soon finds himself, his sister Wendra, his best friend Sutter, and a scholar's so, Braethen, are whisked away by two mysterious strangers, with the Bar'dyn of the Whited one hot on their heels.
In their journey, Wendra will find a surrogate replacement for the child she loses in childbirth, the group are split and struggle to find their destination of the city of Recityv, carefully kept ignorant of the true purposes and reasons for the long journey. Ultimately, decisions and consequences of those decisions conspire to bring the members of the group, changed by their experiences, back together in time to confront the true challenge and destination of their long journey.
The novel is written in third person subjective, with the focus mainly on Tahn and his companions, although we do get a few scenes focused on other characters, too (notably, the regent of Recityv)
I wanted to like this book much more than I did. At shorter lengths, having read a couple of stories Orullian has written and set in this world (both of which work as "extensions" of the narrative of the Unremembered) he is a strong writer, his descriptive prose evocative and sometimes lyrical. At the longer length of the novel, though, for this reader, we do get that, in sections. However, there were problems for me in the reading of this novel.
The plugged-in nature of some of the aspects of the book, for one thing, felt too much like a paint by numbers approach. A check of his website shows that Orullian has given great thought to his world, and yet, a fair number of things do not feel organic and natural. The opening scenes reminiscent of Robert Jordan and Tolkien, for example. Or the fact that the force of evil is counter-intuitively called "the Whited one", as if to avoid the usual connotation of black=evil (this is something Modesitt does, too, in his Recluce novels). Or, more bizarrely, Orullian's concept of elves, the Far. However, instead of being long lived immortals, the Far have lives shorter than the citizens of Logan's Run. I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out how Far society would survive for any length of time given such a severe and inescapable age limit.
On a language front, while the prose descriptions are strong and the combat evocative, I was thrown by some of the names, that, again, felt like he was trying too hard. Recityv? Bar'dyn? Qum'rahm'se? Too many apostrophes in that last one for me. And I got annoyed years ago with a novel where the character smoked "bacco". In the Unremembered, we have "tobaccom" and some characters drink "kaffee". I do understand that coming up with names and concepts in a secondary world is difficult, but, still, it irked me. He does better when describing young adults with the neologism "melura", for example, and he has originality and thought in thinking about the transition to adulthood and how that happens in his world.
I get the feeling that a certain incident and consequence near the climax of the book is where Orullian started, especially given it is foreshadowed earlier in the book. I have no insight to the writer's process, but it reads like that is the singular thing that he started with, and the novel forward and backward, crystallizes from that choice and its consequence. I didn't care for how that decision played out, personally, especially when we learn the costs of that decision to one of the characters.
Perhaps I've read too much fantasy lately with distinctive shades of grey. There is a scene in the movie The Patriot where the antagonist, played by Jason Isaacs, decides to burn a church down, with the people inside. This move is clearly designed from a movie narrative standpoint to have the audience, once and for all, end any sympathy they have for him and paint him as a foe that must be stopped. Its over-the-top and even in the context of a movie, its too much.
In the Unremembered, one set of human antagonists are portrayed in that very way. We get several instances of when they are almost a caricature of villainy and evil. We get one or two token exceptions in the group, but for the most part, the novel seems intent on painting them uncompromisingly evil.
Lastly, the novel quite blatantly ends with an inconclusive ending that seems to be designed for sequels. The fate of at least one character is unknown, and other threats and situations in the world are left very unresolved. The true motivation for the actions of the human antagonists mentioned above, for example, are still not clear. There is a careful balance between leaving things too neatly wrapped up and no-ending at all. The Unremembered falls somewhat away from the midpoint of these extremes.
There are things to like here, though, don't get me wrong. I understand from the press information that Orullian is a musician by trade. It should be no surprise that in the tangle of magic systems in the book, music turns out to be a way to do magic, and strong magic at that. Although late in the book, he pulls back on the lushness of describing the way it works, it reminds me, in a good way, of the Spellsong books.
In fact, I am going to go out on a limb here and wonder why, given his background and training and interest, why he didn't focus his narrative on the musician and music-based magic. Writing what you know is not just a platitude. The joy with which he writes the music-based scenes in this book makes me wonder if (and if not, why not) he tried to do this book from that perspective, or a book from that perspective.
As I have said before, the themes of choice and consequence weigh heavily on the narrative. This reminds me a bit of David Drake's Lord of the Isles series, where he never flinches from the fact that prices have to be paid, like it or not, once a deed is done or even contemplated.
Characterization, as usual for a book like this, varies, and sometimes wildly. I don't blame Tahn for the mixed and gut-wrenching reactions he has to the various revelations in the book, as well as other things. I think a couple of things should have been set up a lot better, however. Tahn's history and nature, once it all comes out has problems resolving itself in my head.
So is Peter Orullian really the next big thing in fantasy, after all?
To be clearer, I don't think he is there, yet. Not by a long way. But this is his first novel. We'll see how his work matures and changes in subsequent books.
What did you think of this review?
Fun to Read
About the reviewer
Paul Weimer (Jvstin)
I'm just this guy, you know?
Consider the Source
Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.