Peter Orullian's The Unremembered (2011) is the author's debut. As the first book in a projected trilogy, The Unremembered evidences a species of wild ambition very different to any of the other DGLA 'Morningstar' (Debut) finalists. The book is a dense tome of over six hundred tightly-packed pages, but, although it does a lot, very little of it is new. However, what it lacks in originality, it certainly makes up for in enthusiasm. This is not necessarily a good thing.
The Unremembered takes place in a land repeatedly threatened by an ancient evil, 'The Quiet'. The Ancient Ones created the world, but one of their number got greedy. They chucked him behind the veil where's he's spent the rest of eternity making evil monsters and harrying humanity. As the eons trip by, the forces of evil gather whenever humanity is at its most fractious and weak. Heroes come, nations bond together, sacrifices are made and the Quiet is driven back. Rinse, repeat.
The book begins in such an age. Several promising young people are all living quiet...er... unremarkable lives in a pleasant rural village. But one day, it all goes wrong. At once.
Tahn, our hero, is out in the forest doing some rangering, that is, communing with nature and pondering the origin of his oddly-symbolic scar. A Quietgiven monster shows up and detonates an elk. Our hero runs to the village to warn everyone but gets distracted by a mysterious stranger that has appeared while he was out. Worse yet, the mysterious stranger that should appear - the Wise Old Storyteller - arrives late, and promptly dies (post-monologue) from injuries sustained by other (unrelated to the first) monsters.
Fortunately, the village smith has just finished making a rare magical sword so Tahn and his best friend can pick it up on the way to gather their other best friend, who has been bequeathed the magical legacy of the Wise Old Storyteller. After a brief but heated discussion, the three boys decide that they should uproot their lives and follow a mysterious stranger on an ill-defined quest, except then Tahn remembers that his sister is due to give birth. He dashes back to his humble ranger home to find her in the throes of labor. Quietgiven monsters (not sure if they're the first group or the second group) attack, Tahn stumbles into his magical powers, and another mysterious stranger (she arrived with the first one - not the Wise Old Storyteller, obviously) pops in to save the day. Combat ensues, bad guys are thwarted, mysterious threats are uttered, a baby is stolen (kind of) and Tahn and his sister face a traumatic moment or two.
This all happens in the first seventy pages.
Picked apart, these first chapters contain sixteen different story arcs, all crashing together in a tsunami of supremely enthusiastic go-juice. Nor does The Unremembered grow any less frantic as it continues. It isn't that the book has a dozen fractured storylines (e.g. George R.R. Martin): everything in The Unremembered whirls inexorably towards a central battle of good (us) versus evil (the Quiet). As the book develops, there aren't twists added - merely more complicated steps in the same linear journey.
There's far, far too much plot in The Unremembered to summarise, so I'll break it down as characters instead. Curiously enough, the book doesn't feature a Chosen One - it squeezes in a half-dozen of them. Sadly, the result isn't a subversive re-imagining of the Chosen One idea; it rather reinforces it. Some people are really special. Most of us aren't.
Table 1.1: Key Characters in The Unremembered
|Name||Chosenness||Innate Awesome||Epic Power||Motivation/ War Cry|
|Tahn||"The Quillescent"; 18-year old multi-class ranger/orphan; mysterious scar; no memory of early childhood; child of prophecy||only one that can fight The Quiet hissonself and save the world||can shoot invisible magic arrows||"Why me?"|
|Wendra||unique musical talent; victim of mysterious rape from unnamed aggressor; baby taken from her; specifically hunted by good and evil||only one that can sing magic song that saves the world (note: really just wants to have kids)||can explode people's brains with her singing||"Save the children"|
|Braethen||studied mythical order of wizards his whole life, learns they exist, joins up; possibly subject of prophecy||only one that can wield epic magic sword necessary to save the world||hidden depths (spotted: they're quite deep)||"No one believes in me"|
|Vendanj||member of mythical order of wizards; subject of prophecy||only one that can lead the heroes to save the world||able to do magic as the plot demands||"[something cryptic]"|
|"Grant"||lives in tormented exile because he Knew This Was Coming; has meaningless but dramatic nickname; long-lost family member||only one that can write the magic scroll that will save the world||always objectively correct||"I am the only one who knows what is right."|
|Mira||ass-kicking heiress to a remote tribe of magical warrior-people; princess; forbidden love interest; subject of magical condition that will kill her at 18||only one that can preserve her people's knowledge and save the world (note: really just wants to have kids)||can sacrifice her innocence to take in the sins of others (not sex-related; still horribly problematic)||"Save the children" (again)|
|Sutter||18 year old multi-class everyman/orphan; talks about his own ordinariness way too much to be believed||warm-hearted comic relief (see: Sam Gamgee); also, can see dead people (!)||drops truth bombs||"I dig roots for food!"|
This may be rubbing it in, but The Unremembered also prods two of my personal bugbears into lumbering action. This is over and above the fact that the female characters are both WombBots (honestly, that's too much to get into right now).
First, The Unremembered has The Quillescent battling the Quietgiven, Sodalists helping Sheason channel the Ford I'Forza, Ta'Opin venturing to Recityv, Bar'dyn lurking in the Hollows and Maere and Inveterae walking the land. Obviously this is a book has no qualms about presenting utter gibberish. So why are people smoking 'tobaccom' and drinking 'koffee'? In a way, that offends me even more than if people were rolling fresh Ansarl'glk after savoring their morning cup o' Flargler. The barrage of apostrophised vocabulary informs me that this is an alien world. Either something is alien ("mmm, fresh Flargler!") or it isn't ("he poked him with a sword"). Sneaking in something between the two hints at mind-boggling parallel lingual evolution and/or indicates a total collapse of the imagination.
Second, there's poetry. Damn you, Tolkien.
To rise above petty cavilling, there are some very well-constructed scenes in The Unremembered, including a few moments of genuine tension. Most of these come about in the early scenes with the League of Civility. It seems that, on top of the land's other problems (demons n' such), there's an immense, influential organisation that is denying the old ways. From its position of political power, the League is driving out the wizards and the true believers - corrupting the realm from within, even as the enemies pour in from beyond the Veil.
The League starts from a position of genuine ambiguity - good people that merely hold a different view of things from that of the heroes. This makes for a potentially empathetic (and interesting) sort of antagonist. Then they're shamelessly Zaned. League members scamper around poisoning little girls, burning people to death and raping nuns. Even the 'sympathetic' members are in on the action, or, at the very least, aware of it and implicitly supportive. The only good League member is a dead League member. Mystical magic-users tell this to our heroes at the start of the book, but, being naive, it takes them a few hundred pages to recognise that all League members are irredeemably evil.
There's something curiously reactionary about the subplot - nor is this unique in The Unremembered. It is a battle between those that insist that hoary old legends should be taken literally and the closed-minded rationalists that argue they should not. Clearly, this has parallels in reality.
The Unremembered goes a step further. With the unbelievers objectively wrong (the only good atheist is a dead atheist), the debate, such as it is, is held within the believer camp. Are the faithful justified in taking violent action? Or should they continue their passive resistance in the face of a clear and present evil? For all of its philosophical pretensions, the book is not shy about taking a stance. The only regrettable action, our Chosen Ones learn, is inaction. If you are right, you must act. It is hard to find a fantasy that doesn't have 'unbelievers' that are proven wrong. But rarely is the position polarised to the degree that it is within The Unremembered.
Newness qua newness is not goal in and of itself, but in a category so thoroughly permeated with recognisable tropes, having some point of distinction is a valuable thing. In the case of The Unremembered, what makes the book unique is not that it brings something new to the table, but that it hauls around so much of the old. Dozens upon dozens of fantasy tropes, each one taken to a new extreme, all shout for the reader's attention. We pick up fantasies because we like fantasy. Yet, in the case of The Unremembered, the book is stomach-churning with its desperate desire to please; to be all things to all people. The result is a cacophony of clichés; a hundred marketable mantras all chanted simultaneously to no good effect.