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.