Trial of Intentions: Issues of pacing and plot overwhelm an intriguing work

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTrial of Intentions by Peter Orullian epic fantasy book reviewsTrial of Intentions by Peter Orullian

I really want to like Trial of Intentions, Peter Orullian’s second novel in his VAULT OF HEAVEN series. I’d really like to recommend it. Not so much for its plot or characters or style, which mostly run from not so good to average, though he has his moments. But underneath the separate pieces of the novel, one has a sense, a somewhat tentative, barely tangible sense, that Orullian is trying to do something interesting here. And it’s for that tantalizing glimpse of the big picture, the “intention” as one of his characters might say (intention being an important concept here), that I so wanted to be able to enthusiastically recommend this book. But thanks to the aforementioned weaknesses, its too-great length, and a storyline that absolutely infuriated me through its latter stages (my margin notes began to accumulate more and more exclamation points — “Really?!”, “Oh, c’mon!!!”), I just can’t. Though I’ll give him a shot via book three with the fairly dim hope that he somehow redeems the series’ potential.

The underlying premise will sound pretty familiar. Long ago, the gods abandoned this world after sealing off a bunch of “bad” creatures known collectively as “The Quiet” into a remote area separated by a semi-mystical, semi-scientific (perhaps) barrier known as “The Veil.” As always seems to be the case in these tales, the Veil is weakening, the creatures are punching through in small but threatening numbers while preparing a mass invasion, the threatened races/nations that should be unified against a common threat are not, a band of plucky individuals is trying to stem the tide of evil (first all together and then by splitting up to do their individual/paired tasks), special weapons are unveiled, magic is wielded, politics get ugly, etc. etc.

That sense of been-there-done-that permeated the first book in the series, The Unremembered, and was a major reason I gave that book only two stars in my review of it. I did mention my hope in that review that The Unremembered, was so clichéd, so overtly familiar, that it was possible that Orullian was employing that sense of familiarity to a new purpose that would reveal itself in book two. Well, we’re here now and while it’s more clear this is what Orullian is doing, 1200-plus pages is way too long to get us there.

I’m not going to go into the specific plot details too much because it is so long a work that a summary will take up too much room. Generally, we shift amongst several groups of characters (most of whom we met in book one) as they try to in their own way stop the imminent invasion of the Quiet. In the city of Recityv, the Regent has called a grand “Convocation” to try and ally the various nation against the Quiet as was done twice in ages past. She is opposed by Roth Staned, the leader of the League of Civility, who doesn’t buy the whole “fairy tale” of the Quiet and is also adamantly, lethally, opposed to the Shearson (magic-users). The head of the Shearson tries to face down a schism in his people over whether there are limits to their use of the Will. Tahn Junell returns to a place of scientific inquiry and experiment — the Grove — to try to learn how to strengthen the Veil and thus prevent the war. Sutter, former “root-digger,” travels with Mira, a Far (kind of like a very short-lived elf) who is losing her Far nature due to the events of book one, to the land of the Smith king to try to get him to join the Convocation. Wendra, whose power is magical song, begins to train at the Descant Cathedral, whose singers strengthen the Veil by constantly singing the Song of Suffering. And finally, we get a view from inside the Bourne (where the Quiet were exiled), as one of the Inveterae (races who think they were mistakenly sealed in the Bourne with the Bar’dyn, the really bad folks of the Quiet) named Kett tries to find a way to lead his people out of the Bourne, to free them from the Bar’dyn.

To begin with a few of the positives. I really liked the Regent and her Shearson advisor as characters, and especially the relationship between them, which was well drawn and felt wholly real. As did the Regent’s relationship with her father and mother. The storyline involving Tahn had several good things going for it. One is that it was a nice change of pace to see a character in one of these epic “The bad guys are coming! The bad guys are coming!” plots trying to prevent the imminent war rather than trying to wage it. We don’t see enough of that in epic fantasy I’d say. I also liked the focus on study, research, and argument. Just as it was nice to see the idea of “Hey, maybe we don’t have to fight” raise its head, it was equally refreshing to see characters hitting the books, performing experiments and observation, doing some math, engaging in thought problems, etc.

And finally with regard to Tahn’s section, Orullian does a good job in weaving actual science throughout a fantasy world that also has magic — a magical system doesn’t necessarily preclude a side-by-side exploration of science, and so we see that this world has investigated magnetism, gravity, astronomy, optics, and the like, all done via good, solid scientific method and all done despite the fact that there are also people who can wield magic.

Another positive aspect is Kett’s storyline, which has some of the most emotionally wrought scenes in the novel. Beyond that, though, this glimpse behind the Veil puts the reader a bit on notice that the usual fantasy assumptions about those monolithically evil creatures living in or sealed off in Mordor/The Scar/The Blight may have some complexity to them. This is also where we get a glimpse of that potential I mentioned at the start, this possible subversion of that most basic of epic fantasy tropes, a subversion that I wish had not been so outweighed by the novel’s problems.

Of which there are several. One is the aforementioned storyline involving the League of Civility and its leader, Roth, who opposes both the Regent and the Shearson. I’m not sure I can convey the sense of frustration followed by annoyance followed by out and out anger this plotline evoked in me. Without giving away too much detail, the problem is that Roth is a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants — he attempts assassinations, he kills major players, he lies constantly, he commits arson, forgery, bribery, and, eventually, he orders an out and out massacre. Now, that’s all fine — he’s the primary antagonist after all. The problem arises in that his opponents all know this. Each and every time. And each and every time, in order to stop him, they… Well, they talk. Sometimes sternly. They might even raise their voice now and then. It made absolutely no sense. None. And that’s not even going into the not-making-sense in terms of basic logistics that I won’t go into for sake of spoilers, but trust me, more than once I stuttered “But, but, but, why wouldn’t they…“ or “But, but, but, he’d just… “

And every time the stakes were raised, every time he did something oh-so-evil that he thought oh-so-hidden and they did nothing about it, it just became more and more implausible and more and more infuriating. I can’t think of the last time I was so infuriated at a book, so angry I was yelling at the author either literally (as in shouting at the book in my hand) or figuratively via my margin notes. It got so bad I almost gave up the book several times despite already being 500+ pages in. This whole plot line was just so, and I have never used this word in a review before, it was just so stupid (literally at one point, as one character, at Roth’s request, does something that is so wholly brain-dead stupid that it is utterly, completely unbelievable).

Other issues weren’t so intensely annoying, but they still stuck out. Events regarding the Smith king relied far too much on coincidence, happenstance, obliviousness, and sudden shifts in characters’ thoughts and behaviors. Just about all of it felt wholly contrived and felt as well that it was working too hard to build up a particular character. The magic system centering on music and resonance is relatively original and interesting to a point, but its exposition grows wearisome in its detail. Overall, the book is far too long (an issue with book one as well), and would have been far better served coming in a good 200-300 pages shorter. Pacing is a problem throughout, with the reading experience stumbling through some clunky exposition or some severe lags. And too many times issues are resolved too easily.

At this point, with a weak opening novel in The Unremembered and an infuriating second novel in Trial of Intentions, it’s easy to guess that I’m not going to recommend the series. But I will pick up the third book with the feeble yet optimistic hope that those scenes in the Bourne, and some of what Tahn is doing, will lead down a path into a reimagining of the usual epic fantasy. If Orullian can pull it off, it’d still be hard to recommend VAULT OF HEAVEN, but it would bode well for Orullian’s next work.

Publication Date: May 26, 2015. The gods who created this world have abandoned it. In their mercy, however, they chained the rogue god–and the monstrous creatures he created to plague mortalkind–in the vast and inhospitable wasteland of the Bourne. The magical Veil that contains them has protected humankind for millennia and the monsters are little more than tales told to frighten children. But the Veil has become weak and creatures of Nightmare have come through. To fight them, the races of men must form a great alliance to try and stop the creatures. But there is dissent. One king won’t answer the call, his pride blinding him even to the poison in his own court. Another would see Convocation fail for his own political advantage. And still others believe Convocation is not enough. Some turn to the talents of the Sheason, who can shape the very essence of the world to their will. But their order is divided, on the brink of collapse. Tahn Junell remembers friends who despaired in a place left barren by war. One of the few who have actually faced the unspeakable horde in battle, Tahn sees something else at work and wonders about the nature of the creatures on the other side of the Veil. He chooses to go to a place of his youth, a place of science, daring to think he can find a way to prevent slaughter, prevent war. And his choices may reshape a world…

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.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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3 comments

  1. Bummer! I’m going to hear him read in a couple of weeks, and I was just about to start the first book in the series.

  2. I was planning to read both of Orullian’s books on a short trip away planned for next week. Now I’m not so sure. There’s something about your review, though, that suggests to me that we might not agree on this one. Hmm.

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