Review – Trial of Intentions (2015)

First of all, the TL;DR: Trial of Intentions (Book Two of the Vault of Heaven) is a long, complicated novel. There is a lot to enjoy, but also may be a lot which frustrates some readers. The villains are very well written, and the setting is excellent, but I found that the heroes often felt lackluster. Trial of Intentions is a fantasy in the grand saga style, but which is likely to only interest readers of its own genre. 6/10.

The Review [Warning, May Contain Spoilers!]:

Before beginning to dig into my thoughts on Trial of Intentions, I ought to make a note on its intended audience. In his Acknowledgements, Peter Orullian notes that he has written this book – the second volume of his series, The Vault of Heaven – as a story capable of being read on its own, without knowledge of the first book (The Unremembered).  In addition, it is my understanding that this work was written as a sequel to the second edition of The Unremembered – which is labeled as the “Author’s Definitive Edition” – and not the first (I may be in error here). I have read the first printing. Finally, at the time of writing there has been a bit of a gap since I read the book. I believe that I can still have a useful opinion, but want it known in spirit of full honesty. All told, I think that it may be worth taking my opinion on Trial of Intentions with a grain of salt.

For me, the process of reading Trial of Intentions only a short time after having read The Unremembered required some substantial gear-shift in mind. The Unremembered is a classic Quest story, and Trial of Intentions is very much not. The story is broad and intricate in the tradition of grand fantasy, with many viewpoints and locales. We are introduced much more openly and deeply to the world of Aeshau Vaal than in the first volume.

One of the problems this causes for a book which presumes to stand alone is that the threads of the plot don’t really interact. One or two of the characters who were companions in the questing party from the first book each set off in different directions, on their own goals. They’re all (more or less) working toward the same overall goal – avoiding or preparing for a cataclysmic war – but the paths of viewpoint characters rarely cross.

The biggest frustration I had with regard to the characters in Trial of Intentions was with (what appears to be) the main character, Tahn. In his portions of the story, it felt like nearly all of the growth and change which took place toward the end of The Unremembered was left to the wayside. Certainly, regaining his early memories ought to hold an impact, but the way in which those memories were important changes. Tahn’s memories were hinted at through a series of intriguing, haunting interlude chapters during The Unremembered, and all of those memories detail his childhood in the barren, lifeless land of the Scar with his father. It is in those early years that he learned and developed his main-character uniqueness – a prescient sense of the Will, a universal moral law – which I personally loved.

However, in Trial, his most important memories center around the Aubade Grove, a slightly secluded enclave of scholars. He goes from having the focus of his main-character uniqueness being on his ability to sense the Will (although some of the splashy magical elements of this are retained, such as the ability to project his ‘self’), and instead has somehow become a prodigal astronomer. Granted, regaining sufficient memory and knowledge could make this happen, but these are memories from when he was ten. Even in a fantasy, I found Tahn’s scientific knowledge difficult to believe, given his age and how little time it is implied that he was able to spend actually studying at the Grove. Tahn’s character arch disappointed me; a hunter who could sense – and struggled with following – an objective moral law instead wandered off to become a scientist.

The real kicker is that I find his opposition’s arguments more compelling, at times. He wants to prove Continuity (the Aeshau Vaal equivalent of unified field theory) because it will let him effect the Veil, the magical barrier which encloses the wilds and monsters of the Bourne. Tahn is going about his science bass-ackwards; he wants to do something practical, so he’s setting out in pursuit of a theoretical framework which fits his view.

In addition, I found that the first hundred or so pages really dragged; for someone who had read the first book, they came across as a heavy info-dump which vomited many of the mysteries and secret tidbits of The Unremembered onto the page. Once I got further into the book the narrative improved greatly, but until the original party split to its own paths the story felt quite sluggish. This isn’t surprising, since Trial was written to be more accessible for readers new to the Vault of Heaven.

Now that I’ve got the griping out of the way, what’s good about Trial of Intentions? A lot, really. The bits which bugged me really got under my skin, but once I began to let the tide of the narrative pull me out from my expectations, large portions were both enjoyable and interesting.

As with The Unremembered, my favorite portions of Trial of Intentions were the stories of the secondary and tertiary characters. However, this novel is more in the tradition of grand fantasy – like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the middle to late volumes of Jordan’s Wheel of Time – than Quest fantasy; the consequence is that the story of characters who previously were pushed to the sides is able to come further into the scene, to my delight.

I deeply enjoyed Orullian’s villains in the last book, and this book is the same; Roth Staned, the Ascendant leader of the League of Civility doesn’t believe in the threat from the Bourne which the protagonists see, and tries to use their actions to his own benefit. But he’s not just out for power – Staned truly is seeking out a better life for the people of Aeshau Vaal, his own way. These are the best kinds of villains. Staned ranks up with Ozymandias (from Watchmen) and Hrathen (from Elantris). Throughout both of his books, Orullian retains a clear sense that evil people believe in the justice of their actions; the person who does evil simply for evil’s sake is exceedingly rare.

The story of political intrigue between Helaina (the Regent of Vohnce, a nation consistently on center stage in the Vault of Heaven) and Staned is very good, and eventually a few of the other characters get drawn into it. It ends with some interesting and surprising twists, and was the biggest draw which kept  me reading.

In addition to my fascination in watching the political machinations twist and wind toward one another, there was another thread of story which strongly caught me. In a series of chapters interluding between spaces of the main narrative, we get to see into the Bourne.

The Bourne is Aeshau Vaal’s equivalent of Mordor (Lord of the Rings) or the Blight (Wheel of Time). It is a dark, dangerous wasteland populated by monsters trapped with their evil god Quietus behind the powerful magical barrier, the Veil.

And Orullian has the guts to make us sympathetic for one of these monsters. I loved it.

Kett Valan, a member of one of the Inveterae races (races which were not created by Quietus, but which were locked away nonetheless) seeks to win free of the Bourne, to earn a better life for his children. It’s implied that the more vicious creatures beyond the Veil want the same – but the difference is that they are willing to commit atrocities to achieve freedom. Kett Valan and his comrades want to journey south to live in peace; they are not vicious, but rather are martyrs from the great, monstrous war in Aeshau Vaal’s ancient past which drove the Quietgiven creatures north into the Bourne.

We don’t see a lot of the Bourne in Trial of Intentions, but that may be just as well; it serves to tease the reader for what is inevitably going to come in future stories. From the start, Orullian has made the claim that he intends to turn the genre conventions of fantasy upon their heads with the Vault of Heaven, and by starting to build sympathy for the devil (in a way), he’s beginning to start doing so in a good way.

The Unremembered held a lot of promise, and Trial of Intentions lives up to it, albeit in a slightly clunky and unanticipated way. It didn’t feel to me that Trial ended cleanly, but I do still look forward to Book Three, and seeing where the story of the Vault of Heaven goes. Trial of Intentions has laid in place strong groundwork which has given me cause to be intrigued and eager for further installments in the series.

Recommendation: To be entirely honest, though, I can’t heavily recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t enjoy grand fantasy in the styles of George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan. It’s a long, complicated narrative which doesn’t have a clear winding-up and gathering-together of plots, but just sort of… ends. Such was my experience, anyway. For those (like me) who do love long and complicated fantasy sagas, Trial of Intentions is an excellent choice, and the Vault of Heaven has great promises in store.

[For those interested in learning more about Peter Orullian and his work, go check out his website! If you’re interested in reading The Unremembered or Trial of Intentions, both are easily available on Amazon and in bookstores. If you’ve read these books and want to argue with me about them, please leave a comment! I love a good bicker.]

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