It was obvious from the very first page that Marc Turner’s Chronicles of the Exile was yet another epic fantasy series I’d end up eagerly following. After seeing When the Heavens Fall reviewed by a number of bloggers I follow, I was completely pulled in by the overwhelmingly positive comments as well as numerous comparisons to Steven Erikson (my favourite author) and Glen Cook. And I can totally see where these comparisons are coming from.
For a start, there’s a whole host of crazy-powerful supernatural beings, the understated yet chilling descriptions of which strongly reminded me of the Taken in Cook’s Black Company. Then there are the sort of quirky, rock-hard, darkly humorous characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Erikson’s Malazan series, not to mention long-lost ancient races and interfering gods using the world as their own personal chess board. And there’s also a dark, gritty undertone – the sort of ‘grimdark’ sensation that none of the characters are ever going to catch a break – that put me in mind of Joe Abercrombie’s excellent First Law trilogy.
But, as easy as it is to say “fans of Cook/Erikson/Abercrombie will love this book,” When the Heavens Fall is not as easily pigeonholed as that. Turner takes much-loved aspects of the above authors’ writing, but has used them to embellish rather than define his own work, a homage as opposed to a blueprint.
I’ll freely admit that it was these comparisons that first drew me in. But what actually kept me reading was Turner’s careful build-up to a final convergence which, while not quite as climactic as I’d hoped, was nonetheless well executed and satisfying. The climax itself and the form it takes is deliberately signposted right from the beginning, but the routes by which our characters arrive there are sufficiently twisted that, while we can guess what will happen, we’re entirely unable to predict how it will happen.
Having the entire plot of a novel building up to one single moment can be risky – especially with sequels on the horizon – but in this case I found it refreshing, a bold change from the many sprawling fantasy epics I usually read. The author uses the alternating viewpoints of a small handful of characters to great effect, switching between them at varying points within each chapter to build momentum and create tension. I personally found all four POV characters to be likable, but unpredictable; and while this meant that I didn’t quite connect with the characters as much as I would have liked, it did keep me constantly guessing what they would do next . . . with many pleasant (and nasty!) surprises as a result.
Yes, When the Heavens Fall is somewhat slow to begin with. But once it gets going there’s no stopping it; and it really gets going once it hits the halfway point. There’s a notable change of pace at around the two-fifty page mark, and the story shifts up several gears from the moment the characters’ stories first begin to overlap. The characters themselves are compelling if not always sympathetic: a particular favourite of mine is Romany, the self-indulgent-yet-badass high priestess whose witty and irreverent verbal exchanges are a constant source of entertainment. The big climax is enjoyable if slightly drawn out, and for every problem resolved there are another ten questions still needing answers. Marc Turner is certainly one to watch, and he does an admirable job of making his readers clamour for the next book without leaving us on a cliffhanger.
With book three, Red Tide, due out next month (September 2016) I’d say that now would be a very good time for those unfamiliar with Turner’s series to start making its acquaintance . . .
(Note: review originally posted on 10th August 2015 on halfstrungharp.com).