In general, there seem to be two types of modern epic fantasy series: On the one hand, there are writers such as Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin, who try to reinvent the genre by discarding the known epic tropes and strive to create a more “realistic” type of fantasy (by completely erasing the distinction between right and wrong); on the other hand, there are authors who try to improve the genre, like Brandon Sanderson. Peter Orullian is without a doubt part of the latter type. His debut novel, The Unremembered, is the first installment of his new Vault of Heaven series and stays true to the tropes of the genre while attempting to ramp up the epicness of the story. Like Sanderson’s works, Orullian’s debut is set in a more colorful world than can be found in many of the traditional epic series. This world has a richer history than most of the epics before him and the scope of Orullian’s story is greater than that of most any traditional work before him.
Asset and flaw
While, as a fan of the genre, I can certainly appreciate what Orullian is attempting, one might suggest he’s biting off more than he can chew. Its scope is not only the biggest asset for The Unremembered, it is also one of its few flaws, resulting in a story that is sometimes hard to follow. For example, regardless of how much I love the diversity of dark creatures serving Orullian’s version of the traditional evil overlord, when four kinds of them are introduced almost simultaneously without any background, it’s rather hard to tell them apart.
To rip off or not to rip off
The Unremembered tells the story of a world, Aeshau Vaal, where one of the gods, Quietus, joined the dark side during creation. He was locked away with all his evil monstrosities, a magic veil separating this vault of heaven from the rest of the world. That veil, however, is weakening, and the evil of legend is roaming the lands freely. It is at this time that a mysterious magician, the Sheason Vendanj, enters a small town known as the Hollows and rescues Tahn and his sister Wendra from these creatures, taking them and their friends Braethen and Sutter on a journey to save the world.
Many, including Patrick from Pat’s Fantasy Hitlist, have pointed out the similarities between The Unremembered and The Eye of the World, first volume in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series — even going as far as calling it “The Eye of the World with different names for characters, places, and monsters.” While I agree that there are indeed similarities, I wholeheartedly disagree that The Unremembered is a Wheel of Time rip-off. The truth is that these similarities are in fact tropes many years older than most of us, appearing in works ranging from The Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars movies.
Longing for originality
Instead of being The Eye of the World with different names, I felt that The Unremembered worked with these tropes rather well, even deviating from them here and there — though certainly not often enough. The world, people and events in Orullian’s work are quite original and always fresh and surprising. However, don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before; this is still traditional epic fantasy in its truest sense, and I was, at times, longing for some original plots.
Masterful world building
Fortunately, Orullian’s prose, characters, and masterful world building made up for much of this lack of originality. The world building in particular impressed me a great deal. This isn’t some small world with ten nations, but a large, rich world with dozens and dozens of countries and peoples, the few of them that have already been introduced coming with hints of an expansive background and history. The political atmosphere is intriguing and holds great promise for future novels.
Equally impressive was the magic in The Unremembered. Magic in the world of Aeshau Vaal reminded me of ‘The Force’ in the Star Wars universe. In Orullian’s work, it is called The Will and can be “rendered” to create or destroy in numerous ways. For example, the Sheason — and their evil counterpart the Velle — can render it through The Gift, which is passed on from one Sheason to the next, and the Decant musicians can render by channeling their emotions through songs. This type of magic has a universal feel to it, as it is the energy that binds the world together. There is also potential for many different ways of rendering, simply because the magic hasn’t yet been fully explained in The Unremembered. The fact that this rendering of The Will is outlawed makes it all the more interesting.
A darker edge
Despite the obvious use of the conventions of the epic genre in The Unremembered — leading to a book that isn’t set apart by the originality of the story, but by the world in which it takes place — there is a distinct darkness to The Vault of Heaven that I haven’t experienced in any other epic series. This darkness goes beyond the simple outlawing of magic, touching all aspects of life in the world of Aeshau Vaal. This is a place where no one is safe. Women are robbed of their freedom and children are taken from their parents. The Bar’dyn — soldiers of the enemy — aren’t dumb beasts like Tolkien’s Orcs or Jordan’s Trollocs, but have a mind of their own, giving some scenes a more horrifying feel than you would expect to find in the traditional half of the epic genre. What’s more, there is this nagging feeling that right and wrong may not be as conventional as they seem, and there might be more to this ancient war than the surface suggests.
Cliffhangers and interludes
While The Unremembered is always intriguing and often surprising, it isn’t a page turner. It probably could have been, if not for the very flaw — the scope of Orullian’s writing — that I mentioned earlier. There were many interludes — short chapters that deviate from the main story line and bring us several viewpoints from characters not formally introduced — in the first two hundred pages of the book, making the book very hard to get into. When the story finally gets underway after the main characters separate — another one of those overused tropes you could see coming from miles away — the pacing is thrown off by chapters constantly ending on a cliffhanger, followed by a chapter from a different viewpoint. While this served to keep a reader interested — in a rather cheap way, I might add — it became very annoying very quickly.
Why should you read this book?
If you are, like me, a fan of traditional epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time, you will definitely enjoy The Unremembered. While this book has a great many flaws, it is certainly a worthy read. It is conventional material with a dark and promising edge. I look forward to its sequel, which I hope will surprise me with twists and turns, leading away from the somewhat obvious tropes and into original territory. While it is far from the best book I’ve read, the many layers of The Unremembered make The Vault of Heaven one of the most promising series I’ve encountered.