Review – The Unremembered (2011)

First of all, the TL;DR: Peter Orullian’s debut novel is a gem in the rough. Marred by substantial structural similarities to The Eye of the World, the details of the world’s lore and magic combined with a tight focus on the choices made lead this novel to life of its own. The Unremembered is a good book for anyone who enjoys Quest fantasy, but probably ought to be left aside by those who don’t. 7/10

The Review [Warning: may contain spoilers for both The Unremembered and The Eye of the World]:

[Author’s Note: There are two editions of this book. I read and reviewed the 2011 printing; a more recent printing was published in 2015 with revisions by the author.]

The Eye of the World is such a good book. I love that story. A bunch of kids get swept away in the dead of the night by a mysterious, magic-wielding stranger and propelled toward an unknown destiny. It’s my favorite Quest narrative – and I’m inclined to say that the first volume of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time is the best Quest story written. Even The Lord of the Rings doesn’t top it as a questing adventure story (even if I consider Tolkien’s story to be the better novel).

Problem is, this week I’m reviewing Peter Orullian’s debut novel, The Unremembered (published by Tor in 2011). The story structure of both novels is nearly identical. Not just in the tropes; The Lord of the Rings, The Sword of Shannara, Wizard’s First Rule, The Hobbit, and The Eye of the World all follow the same classic pattern of a Quest narrative.

Why does The Unremembered irk me ever so slightly?

Because it isn’t just clothing made of the same fabric, it’s full-on gone and stolen Jordan’s tailor. Several of the important, pivotal moments of The Unremembered are lifted from The Eye of the World – the division of the company, an ancient city abandoned and haunted, and even the chilling sequences where Rand and company travel through the Ways in a final mad dash to reach the Eye of the World are mimicked. The Unremembered doesn’t follow The Eye of the World with surgical precision, but at several moments it comes frustratingly close.

If there are so many problems, why did I enjoy this book so deeply? Why was The Unremembered the first fantasy I’ve read since The Wise Man’s Fear to keep me up long hours? (here I exclude Sanderson’s books, as I am unashamedly a fanboy.)

The fabric from which Orullian’s story is cut is simply marvelous. Many of The Unremembered‘s themes resonate throughout the lore and setting of Aeshau Vaal, drawing a web of story and music, choice and sacrifice. The entire purpose of storytelling – paraphrased from Aristotle’s Poetics – is watching someone make a decision. Some of the decisions made are heartbreaking, some are astounding, and some are unfortunately puzzling. Orullian does an excellent job of breaking away from the Quest narrative in how he handles the choices of his main characters, as well as providing firm in-world reasons for why their small choices have large consequences.

Overall, the characters were middling to good quality. I found the secondary and tertiary characters were generally more interesting than the main group. The chapters which deviate from telling the story of Tahn (the Rand equivalent) and his friends were a welcome respite to their sometimes wearisome adventures. Those chapters added a feel of mystery and curiosity to the world, and were very effective at drawing me deeper into the world. In contrast, the dangers focused on Tahn and his friend Sutter rarely felt as if there was any true danger or conflict.

The only female main character, Wendra, feels rather flat and bland at first; She seems to be along for the ride merely because she’s a motive for Tahn. Wendra quickly grows into her own much as Egwene does in The Eye of the World, but in much darker direction. Even still, her primary motives always revolve around mothering and protectiveness, and she never seems to move far beyond those territories into becoming a more complex individual. Her chapters of the story were often the most interesting to read (in part due to my personal fascination with her antagonist Jastail), but by the end I found Wendra to be unfortunately single-faceted in her motivations.

Names and naming drove me a little nuts in this book. For whatever reason names are something I tend to pay a fair bit of attention to, and when I have trouble finding the internal logic to them or a somewhat systemic sound to the names something just twitches inside. Like nearly all High Fantasy, there are many, many names to remember for people, places, events, and powers which need to be kept in mind – not an issue in my opinion, but important to expect. Some of the names worked very well, such as Rudierd Tellinghast (the Aeshau Vaal equivalent of the Eye of the World; a location of mists and spirits) in conjunction with Delighast (the equivalent of tarmon gai’don), each holding the connotation of spirit (ghast). However, other names didn’t work so well – such as the name of the “Whited One,” Quietus. Other names just came across as strange to me, such as Vendanj (a secondary viewpoint character) and the Order of Sheason (pronounced SHAY-son, and mentally mispronounced “season” numerous times).

However, I found the Quietgiven to be an interesting take on the generic fantasy monster. Unlike the orcs of Tolkien or the Trollocs of Jordan, the Bar’dyn are shown to be to some degree intelligent and to quite possibly have the capacity for empathy. Indeed, it is in the villainous and the antagonists that Orullian’s character and world creation often shines brightest. The prologue read to me like a loving homage to the prologue of The Eye of the World – but from the perspective of the series’ villain. This gave it a fresh taste and feel – especially with the knowledge that all, even the gods, have limits to their powers.

The sense of moral rightness – called the Will – which supports and provides foundation to both the story and the world of Aeshau Vaal is palpable throughout the whole book. Tahn’s uniqueness comes from an unnaturally keen sense of this metaphysical principle which was born within him. Metaphysical and moral structure to the worldbuilding lent a deep connection throughout the book. While Tahn has so, so many similarities to Rand al’Thor, his specialness is his own.

On a last note I should mention that in general I felt Orullian’s prose to be incredibly enjoyable. It may not be for everyone; my taste in fantasy prose is the sprawling, descriptive sort for the most part – and Orullian satisfies my taste in that. His debut novel comes across as a gem in the rough, but those times when the writing and the story hit hard, they really make an impact. At the end of it all, I do recommend reading The Unremembered (so long as you like Quest fantasy, anyway). Even with the many notable similarities of structure to The Eye of the World, the details Orullian puts into the setting and lore generate a very different world and experience for the reader.

If you’re interested in reading The Unremembered for yourself, it’s available on Amazon as well as other vendors. If you’re interested in learning more about Peter Orullian or his series, The Vault of Heaven, you can check it out here. If you disagree with my assessment of the book or have questions about my thoughts, feel free to leave your opinion in the comments!

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