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Music was a massive inspiration to me in my younger middle-school days. It inspired me and helped me focus on my studies. I felt less alone with the affirmation that others felt the same feelings as me. With music, I was able to process my emotions and artistically express myself.
Linkin Park was the first band I obsessed over, but Dream Theater was the first band to truly inspire me. I still remember the first time I heard one of their songs. I was around 15 and had a friend spending the night. We were playing zombies and Guitar Hero when he said; you must listen to this song.
It was Octavarium by Dream Theater. The storytelling and passages moved me in a way a song never had before. The song hypnotized into the world of their music, and from that point, I knew I wanted to be a musician.
I am tone death and have two left feet, so that career didn’t pan out. I am a storyteller, and that led me to write.
Years later, Dream Theater launched The Astonishing – a high concept, 2-disc, rock opera with a storyline to fill a novel, and it did. Today, I am reviewing The Astonishing by Peter Orullian. I’m going to look at; plot and structure, its world-building elements, compare it to the album and discuss its merit as a stand-alone novel.
The Astonishing is a sci-fi novel set in a dystopian future where mankind returns to feudalism and is controlled by machine-made music meant to suppress creativity in people.
Starting with an incredible opening image where our protagonist, Gabriel, and his brother Arhys witness Arhys’s son’s birth and the death of his wife, we see Gabriel try to bring Evangaline back to life with the sound of his voice. Gabriel ultimately fails, but this sets the tone for the brother’s relationship throughout the novel.
The opening sets up the narrative by first showing a futuristic world. No one cares about music and self-expression. People are controlled by these sound machines known as NOMACs. With the ability to suppress people’s individuality, people no longer have a need for music and work their lives for the emperor.
Some workers know they could have a better life, so the Ravenskill militia and other resistance fighters are constantly attacking government convoys searching for resources.
Rumor has it there is a man who sings and inspires hope into people that one day they will be free of the emperor, though Gabriel isn’t so sure about his gift. When he sings, people feel more of their individuality, and there is a magic quality to his voice. Ahrys believes Gabriel could use it as a weapon with enough practice.
After a raid goes poorly, Gabriel sings inspiration into people, healing their wounds and preparing them for the next fight. The emperor catches this through NOMAC surveillance, and we quickly head into the inciting incident.
Emperor Nafaryus parades into Ravenskill to see Gabriel for himself. After hearing Gabriel sing, he gives him three days to turn himself in, or he’ll raze Ravenskill.
Plot & Structure:
The Astonishing is a perfect example of three-act structure. In act one, we get the setup and most of the world-building. We see the effect of the Great Northern Empire (GNE) and how they control the people. Finally, we have the conflict of an oppressive government enslaving their people and a savior who inspires people to have hope for a better life. In act 2, we see the conflict build, and tensions increase until, in act 3, everything comes to a resolution.
I read half of the book in a single day; it was that good!
While sleeping, after finishing the novel, an epiphany hit me, The Astonishing follows the plot of Romeo and Juliet. We follow the perspective of two rival families. The emperor’s daughter falls in love with the resistance’s savior, and tragedy ensues.
Though it does borrow elements from that classic tragedy, Orullian does a fantastic job of making it his own. There are many twists and turns. And aside from Daryus, you sympathize with all of the characters – wanting them all to succeed.
Though John Petrucci writes the original story, and I went into the novel knowing the album’s plot, I was still guided along with a range of emotions. I was telling my friend, some moments surprised me and almost brought me a tear. The events of the story happen in mostly chronological order, from a close third-person perspective. You get into the heads of five of the characters and care for four of them. Though the real star of the show is the world, Petrucci and Orullian create.
Elements of World-building:
The year is 2285, and after the End Wars, the world has returned to feudalism. Most citizens who don’t own land work for The Great Northern Empire (GNE), and how are people supportive of this system? Music that was once used to inspire is now used to suppress humanity and self-expression within the populace – allowing for easy control.
The world-building within The Astonishing is well integrated into the narrative. It spends moments to give exposition to the reader here and there but mostly writes with an assumption that the reader can figure it out. It never provides too much information at any given time and focuses on the narrative at hand. Orullian only sheds light on details that are necessary for the scene.
The Magic System:
The real star of the world-building is the magic system. It doesn’t talk about it in terms of spells; in fact, it is a very soft magic system. The magic lies in music and is tied to emotions behind the sounds. Because the NOMACs are lifeless machines, they only have the power to suppress and erase humanity. Whereas Gabriel – the only bard in the world – has the ability to give humanity back to people.
Music and magic are interchangeable in this world, so when I say magic, I am referring to music and vice versa. Music is rare in this world, though it isn’t forbidden by law. It is long forgotten and mostly only created by machines. Because it’s forgotten, there is no manual on how it is used or how to control it.
This is a good lore reason for the soft magic system. You don’t know what it can do until it’s done, but it isn’t written in a cheap, because of magic, way. It still has limitations that don’t make it all-powerful. First, it is tied to the caster’s emotions, and it takes up energy from the caster.
Peter Orullian does a fantastic job of leaving hints in the magic’s possibilities at the beginning of the novel to have an intense emotional payoff in the climax. The ending feels earned and not cheated by the magic system.
Read more about how to craft a magic system here.
A feudalistic government runs The Astonishing’s world of The Great Northern Empire of the Americas. The emperor owns all the GNE and splits it into smaller nations with their own leaders who serve the emperor. The working class is controlled by the NOMACs and works to support the GNE, not themselves.
It is stated that most people work the fields, and if they aren’t working the fields, then they run small shops at a 70% tax to the GNE. It’s little details like this that show the weight of the government over its people.
We follow three characters that are part of the emperor’s family, including emperor Nafaryus himself, and two characters that directly oppose the governing bodies. Seeing the government’s effects from both sides gives a more well-rounded view of how the government affects the overall world and why people are fighting.
The way the government uses the magic system to control the populace is genius and terrifying. There is a moment where the GNE uses music to make people forget who they are and lose all sense of self.
Read here to learn more about writing governments.
The Album vs. The Novel:
The year is 2016, and I’ve locked myself in my room to play Audiosurf with the release of Dream Theater’s 13th studio album: The Astonishing. The initial track begins, and I’m greeted with strange futuristic sounds. Metallic beats that don’t quite sound like music, and then the overture hits, and I’m transported instantly to this futuristic world where no one has time for music anymore.
The album is a musical, cinematic masterpiece. The details, the characters, it all flows together impeccably. And then, Peter Orullian released the novel in 2019. It follows the same story yet adds so much more detail that the album could not capture. It adds characters and twists that the music just couldn’t.
The two stories are very different experiences. The album is fast-paced, with a ton of in your face tracks coupled with ballads to bring you into the character’s heads. The book takes more time with the character’s allowing you to know these people. They both, however, jump perspectives between the cast, allowing you to witness the events from a different lens.
The book had me at the edge of my seat throughout the second and third acts. I did not want to put it down. I finished the last half in a single day, and I don’t usually read more than a chapter a day.
This sci-fi metal opera borrows from tales like Romeo and Juliet and adds a magical twist. Petrucci and Orullian do a fantastic job of crafting this dystopian world – bringing the characters to life.
Anyone can enjoy the narrative with the option to immerse themself into the music of The Astonishing for two and a half hours or transport themself into the world through the novel.
I don’t want to rate this book on a scale of 1-10 and instead rate it on the Naruto mission structure.
D-rank means the story is unreadable, doesn’t hold readers’ attention, has tons of distracting issues, etc.
C-rank is a novel that takes effort to finish. It has many elements of a good story but is painfully generic.
B-rank is a good story. It’s fun, engaging but doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
A-rank is an amazing story, you don’t want to stop reading, and you’re on the edge of your seat all the way through.
And, S-rank is the best of the best; they are genre-defining stories.
With all this in mind, I give The Astonishing by Peter Orullian, a B-rank. It’s a good novel. It hits all the major beats of Save the Cat! it has a few twists and turns, but it is nothing groundbreaking. The story has been told a thousand times, and that is okay. It’s worth a read if you love Dream Theater or are looking for a fun, mindless story.
If you have read this book, let me know your thoughts in the comments below! I would love to talk spoilers with you and get into the nitty-gritty of the details.
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C. D. Baron
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