Book Review: When the Heavens Fall by Marc Turner
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Series: Book 1 of The Chronicles of the Exile
Publisher: Tor (May 19, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Marc Turner’s When the Heavens Fall was a book that snuck quietly onto my radar earlier this year. I knew next to nothing about it beyond the official publisher’s description, and so as with most things shrouded in mystery, I was instantly intrigued and hoping it would score a surprise hit. In retrospect, my first impressions might have been different if I had kept my expectations more in line, but even after they were tempered I knew I probably wouldn’t be shelving this one under my favorites. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, because this is a very solid debut. However, some parts just didn’t work for me as well as it probably would for other readers.
At first glance, this seemed like your classic quest narrative. All the characters and events appeared to be linked to the theft of an extremely powerful and dangerous magical artifact called the Book of Lost Souls. Hidden long ago by the death god Shroud, a rogue mage called Mayot Mencada has since uncovered the tome and spirited it away deep into the Forest of Sighs. This sparks the beginning of the story for four different characters, each with their own agendas. Luker is a former Guardian who embarks on this journey to search not for the book but for his mentor, who was the last person to go after Mayot. Tasked to keep an eye on things is a priestess named Romany, whose patron goddess the Spider was the one who manipulated Mayot into stealing the book in the first place. Then there’s Ebon, heir to a kingdom on the edge of the Forest of Sighs, who is also plagued by voices of spirits in his head. And finally, there’s Parolla, a young woman who seeks entry into Shroud’s realm to settle an old debt with the Lord of the Dead himself.
I think most epic fantasies I’ve read are structured in a way so that each chapter is given to a different character perspective in order to keep all the points-of-view straight. However, When the Heavens Fall does not follow this format, instead switching from viewpoint to viewpoint randomly within chapters, which is one reason why the first 100 pages gave me so much trouble. This constant jumping around – especially when the story is dealing with multiple characters in different locations – gives the introduction a sense of disorganization. This section also holds a lot of background information, and the fact that it’s so densely packed slows down the pacing quite a bit.
To its credit, the book picks up by a lot after the first half. It’s not a coincidence that this is also when the four different storylines begin to converge and when I finally started to spot the connections. Each plot thread does have its ups and downs, though. For example, Luker’s story didn’t capture my interest until the finale, since so much of his story about search for the book/his mentor felt like wheels spinning in place. after losing much of its traction past the first few chapters. On the other hand, Parolla’s story was just the opposite; so much about her was an unknown in the intro, but the more I learned about her and her quest, the more excited I became about her character. And because Romany so often dealt in the metaphysical realm and appeared in a spiritual form, that abstraction might have predisposed me against her chapters. Perhaps the only one whose story I consistently enjoyed was Ebon’s, with his struggles to protect his kingdom in the face of undead attackers and dubious allies. When the four characters find themselves all together in the final showdown against Mayot though, that’s when things get real. This is a very large and intricate web that Marc Turner has spun, and while it does take a little patience, I promise everything will eventually click into place. The ending is truly superb.
I see in Marc Turner’s profile that he names Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie as his major influences. After reading When the Heavens Fall, I can definitely see that, though I would say his writing style leans more towards the former author than the latter. Certainly I feel it is closer to Erikson than Patrick Rothfuss, who is the one mentioned in the book’s blurb. I’ve seen several reviewers compare this one to the Malazan books, and in fact I agree they are quite similar in style and tone with that dark, epic feel. Magic is a very complex and abstract concept here, and in a novel like this which is not immune to its fair share of common fantasy tropes, I have to say the system of necromancy and dark sorcery is its most unique and striking aspect.
All in all, this was a good book, though I won’t deny there were many parts that presented a real struggle. The biggest obstacle was the pacing, which was uneven in parts and slowed the momentum. Furthermore, it’s possible my enjoyment was impeded by the fact this might not even be the type of epic fantasy I would normally go for. It’s interesting to note I couldn’t get into Erikson’s Malazan either, so the problem likely isn’t with the book, it’s with me. What this means is I can see When the Heavens Fall working extremely well for some readers, but I just wasn’t swept off my feet. For you, this could end up one of your favorite reads this year. For me, it was an experience I wish I could have enjoyed more. Still, I don’t regret reading this. It was a new and refreshing encounter with a very different kind of sword and sorcery.