Book Review: When the Heavens Fall
The Chronicle of the Exile, Book I
by Marc Turner
Marc Turner’s epic fantasy debut When the Heavens Fall (the first book in a projected series called “The Chronicle of the Exile”) appears as a $30 hardcover with a string of adulatory blurbs from fantasy readers like Ed Greenwood, Elizabeth Haydon, and Brian Staveley, the author of the superb “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne” series. The blurbs extoll Turner’s book for its powerful fantasy, thrilling complexity, and great world-building.
These people might be Turner’s neighbors, or perhaps his bandmates; in any case, there’s neither powerful fantasy nor thrilling complexity nor great world-building anywhere on display in When the Heavens Fall. Such things tend to stand out in the course of over 500 often drearily derivative pages. Instead, we get the first installment in a fantasy series that feels intensely familiar in every detail.
The book’s plot revolves around a sorcerous object of great power suddenly at large in the world – not a ring nor a staff nor a stone in this case but a book, the Book of Lost Souls, which grants its user control over the dead. The Book of Lost Souls has been stolen by a sorcerer mage, and its disruptive magic now threatens the entire world of Turner’s devising with a cataclysmic new war. The threat of this war draws in a diverse cast of characters, from an embittered soldier to a sinuous evil lady-sorcerer to a tough-minded warrior-woman, with some very human god-figures thrown in for extra color.
But that extra color isn’t much more than a tinge here and there, and Turner doesn’t help bring out the blush any, instead larding almost every scene and encounter with exactly the kind of fake, arch quasi-Walter Scott dialogue that fills fifty of these kinds of novels every year, with only the names changing:
Parolla looked back at Ceriso. The youth lingered like a courier wanting a tip for his news. She’d wasted enough time on him already, but perhaps she should take this opportunity to find out more about his masters – and how he had managed to track her down with such apparent ease. “Who sent you, sirrah?”
“The high priest of the Antlered God, of course.”
“Why? Why would he warn me he was coming?”
“Why would he not? He is, after all, a servant of the Lord of the Hunt. The thrill is in the chase.”
“And if I choose not to run?”
Ceriso winced. “That would be ill-advised. The high priest would be most aggrieved.”
It makes you long for just two or three pages of Joe Abercrombie. Instead, the barrage of lazy writing never quite lets up. On every other page, somebody is bound to be thinking He should have killed her while he had the chance, or noticing that for every undead assailant struck down, two more rose in his place, or watching the passage of some nefarious character and noticing that Where she trod, her footsteps left black impressions on the grass …
When he’s writing about the actual workings of the magic system he’s created, Turner does a very energetic job – his narrative inevitably perks up when his magic-saturated characters are manipulating the many layers of the ingenious wardings that constitute the sorcery of his world:
The Spider’s attention had already moved on, though. She stretched out her senses toward the Book of Lost Souls, and Romany watched with grudging admiration as the goddess set to work, peeling away layer upon layer of the Book’s wards. Whoever had last owned the thing had spared no effort in safeguarding its secrets, for the Book was protected by traps within traps, each deadlier and more devious than the last. As one was disarmed, another would be triggered; one neutralized, another activated. And so it went on. Feints and illusions, strikes and counterstrikes, like two blade masters dueling. Indeed, the Spider showed a deftness of mind that, Romany had to acknowledge, almost matched her own.
But although such passages (and the frequent action-sequences for which Turner also displays strong aptitude) are enjoyable in their own right, there aren’t enough of them to float When the Heavens Fall above the water table of modern fantasy novels. Critics of the genre routinely dismiss it by saying “if you’ve read one, you’ve read ’em all,” which is certainly not true. But if you’ve read ’em all, you’ve most certainly read this one.