When The Heavens Fall by Marc Turner
(Tor US, ISBN 978-0-7653-3712-2, 544pp, $27.99/$32.50 CAN, HC) May 2015. Cover by Richard Anderson.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke
Epic fantasy is a broad field, and one that produce a great deal of argument. (What exactly does one mean by epic fantasy, after all?) The quality of literary production within this field is extremely variable. At its best, epic fantasy tells affecting stories with mythic resonance: it makes the reader both feel and think. At its worst, it descends into a morass of undigested tropes and unreadable prose.
Somewhere in the middle lies Marc Turner’s debut novel from Tor, When The Heavens Fall, billed as “The First Novel in the Chronicles of the Exile.” Not every book is for every reader, but from where I stand, When The Heavens Fall is definitely closer to the worst end of the bell curve than the best. Four words are fatal when a reader applies them to a book.
Those words are: “Why should I care?”
There is a man with a MacGuffin. The mage Mayot has acquired the artefact known as the Book of Lost Souls, a repository of necromantic power that can give its wielder power over the dead: enough power to threaten Shroud, the god of death. Mayot has made his lair in the Forest of Sighs and begun amassing an army of the undead, in order to challenge the death god himself. Destruction and death on a grand scale are inevitable with that kind of power at stake — especially when every other ambitious type on the continent, or possibly the world, wants to claim the book’s power for themselves.
When The Heavens Fall follows four separate viewpoint characters: Romany, priestess of a goddess known as the Spider; Ebon, a prince of Galitia and later its king; Parolla, a young woman with great power in terms of death magic who seeks vengeance on Shroud; and Luker, a Guardian — a kind of soldier-sorcerer. None of them know each other, nor do they encounter each other until well into the final hundred pages. (Romany, in fact, ends the novel without encountering or significantly affecting the other three at all.) All of them are in some way affected by Mayot’s possession of the Book of Lost Souls. Parolla senses its power and sets out towards it, hoping to find a portal through which she can pass to challenge the death god. Luker is summoned back into service by the leader of his order at the command of a corrupt emperor and sent with companions to reclaim the book from Mayot. Ebon finds his city under attack by Mayot’s army of undead and with uncertain allies, breaks free from the siege and sets out to try to stop the undead onslaught. And Romany is under orders from her goddess to assist Mayot against the agents of Shroud, until the time is ripe to betray him — and it strikes me as tone-deaf at best to name the plump, vain, backstabbing-scheming character “Romany.”
Apart from Romany, all three viewpoint characters spend the majority of the novel travelling, resting from travelling, and fighting things and people encountered while travelling. Romany spends the majority of the novel sitting in one place decoying powerful redshirts to their death and spying on Mayot, until she herself is killed. Her narrative thread exists essentially to give a viewpoint on Mayot, his confused goals, and several random redshirt encounters. She has no goals of her own, apart from those imparted by her goddess — whose instructions she obeys in a desultory fashion — and the narrative spends little time developing her arc in a meaningful fashion. One remains uncertain of her motivation for obeying her goddess in the first place.
Motivation and character development are not in general things to which When The Heavens Fall pays a great deal of attention. This is a novel that is more concerned with flashy set-piece fights and random encounters on the world map, with describing monsters and warriors, than with building solid character arcs and developing anything resembling a theme. In many ways, its approach to narrative and it shallow — and occasionally confused — attitude to characterisation and character motivation reminds me of a roleplaying game. At a cursory glance, it hangs together: look for very long, and the logic may well fall apart. Only one of the narrative threads — Luker’s — has anything like life and personality, but one of four can’t carry an entire novel.
The dialogue is generally clunky. One character speaks in ungrammatical Early Modern English — one supposes to indicate his ancient vintage. The prose is workmanlike, with a handful of striking descriptive turns. The climax is a chaotic mess, and the resolution is in no way earned.
Finishing When The Heavens Fall was a struggle, and not one I recommend.