BattleAxe, The Axis Trilogy and Sara’s Women: Re-reading Sara Douglass with Karen Brooks

The wonderful people at Voyager/Harper Collins asked me to blog about 20 years of Sara Douglass’ Battleaxe and our friendship. Here is what I wrote.

battleaxeIt’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since BattleAxe first hit Australian shelves and entered readers’ imaginations. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of this game-changing novel, other writers have meaningfully reflected upon how and why Sara and her work were both aspirational and inspirational in terms of their own craft and the Australian fantasy-writing scene. In honour of this occasion, Voyager/Harper Collins have asked me to share my experiences on first reading the Axis trilogy compared to reading it again recently.

Returning to the books after such a long spell and after devouring Sara’s other amazing novels in the interim, losing myself in the detailed and fabulous worlds and people she created, I was a bit anxious. My memories of my first encounter with the books are still very strong. I recall sleepless nights, the emails to Sara telling her where I was up to and how upset I was by something she’d done to a character (usually Faraday), or how deliciously apt she’d made someone’s comeuppance, or how damn gory a specific battle or scene was. She would write back in her usual way – wicked humour laced with irony – and tell me to hang on, worse was to come.

She was right.

That was the most wonderful thing about re-reading BattleAxe, and the rest of the series. It has more than held up in the intervening years; even improved as being a writer, I now understand the complexity and beauty of what Sara has done. BattleAxe is still astounding within the genre: populated by original and remarkable characters whose motivation, actions and reflections make them all too human, even when they are not. It’s thrilling, bloody, spiritual, sensual, sexual and with a centre that draws upon history in innovative ways, offering a profound commentary on religion, ideology and cultural conflict that’s compelling and quite extraordinary.

battleaxe-1steditioncover-ShaunTanI confess. Re-reading not just BattleAxe, but the trilogy, I was dumbstruck again. My dear friend, the woman with whom I drank too much, laughed till we cried, chatted with ghosts, discussed the ups and downs of academia and writing, confessed hopes and dreams for the future and our love of animals; whom shared her secrets with me including her greatest fears, wrote this bloody fantastic series.

I was both proud and humbled and if I’m completely honest, a little scared as well. I mean, how many of your friends can describe a birth-scene to the point some vomit? This made Sara, who always sought to challenge stereotypes and clichés as well as utilise them when appropriate, cackle like a hen.

While it’s tempting to try and “read” Sara through her books, make an attempt to understand her attitudes to say, the world, religion, men, friendship, families etc. via the words drawn from her vivid mind, it would be a mistake. Sara was not the characters she created or their stories; though, I might concede this (and she would very likely laugh her head off) in her portrayal of complex, compassionate, kind, clever and strong women you might come close.

I adored the range of female characters in this series (I loved the men too). Some of the most … how do I put it… interesting conversations Sara and I had about the Axis Trilogy revolved around two of the main female characters: Azhure and Faraday. Whereas I identified with both and found them stalwart and fascinating studies, I always felt Sara was a little harsh on Faraday, if not unfair.

Enchanter-rereleaseWhen reviewing Enchanter, the second book in the series in 1996, I wrote: “Azhure would have to be one of the most realistically and compassionately constructed fantasy heroes to date. She has a fabulous birthright, a shocking past, and a greater role in the prophecy … than anyone would have foreseen. Enchanter is as much her story as it is Axis’s.”

When Starman, the third book in the trilogy was released, I said of Faraday that she returned “with a vengeance and, whilst not distorted by Axis’ shoddy treatment of her, she is appropriately bitter, and this makes her character all the more appealing and places an edge to her dedication… Faraday is an enigma, and while her final moments in the book are a sad if fitting tribute, I cannot help but think she deserved better.”

Perhaps her name should have been a clue to her destiny.

Keen to recuperate “lost” history wherever she could, uncover secrets, it was when passing through the sleepy township of Faraday outside Bendigo in Victoria, Sara knew she had the name for her naïve and “doomed” heroine. Faraday – the place – is renown for the kidnapping of six female school students (aged between five and ten) and one teacher in October 1972. A ransom of one million dollars was demanded. It was never paid and, due to the plucky actions of the teacher, they all escaped unscathed.

starman-1stedition-shauntanSara chuckled when I told her I loved Faraday and felt she endured so much. That gleam came into her eye. “I can’t stand her,” she said provocatively. “If I could, I’d kill her off,” she told another friend who felt the same way as me.

Of course, she didn’t and revelled in and respected the passion her fans showed for this remarkable character she put through the wringer in every conceivable way.

But Sara also pulled back from making Faraday more than the “victim” she could have been – just like the strong teacher and her resilient pupils. Sacrificing herself for the greater good, Faraday becomes a spiritual foil to the grand physical and emotional zeal of the beautiful and powerful Azhure and Axis and leaves the world a better place.

Perhaps that’s where Sara, without knowing it, has something very much in common with the least favourite of her characters. Like the Tree-Friend Faraday, Sara Douglass, through the words she crafted as well as the ideas she planted, which continue to thrive and grow, has indeed left this world a better place.

And we’re all the richer for that.

Karen Brooks

©2015 Karen Brooks / Voyager Online. You can read the original blog post on the Voyager Online website here.

High Fantasy Addict: Hades Daughter

hades-daughter-aus-releaseGreeting’s Brave Adventurers.

I’m going to come right out and say it; I really enjoyed this book.

Douglass has been criticized for over-zealous depictions of sex and depravity in her novels, but I didn’t find this to be so. Douglass is a female-centric writer, and I think it is hard to imagine a female protagonist in a medieval setting who does not confront ‘sex-as-weapon’ – either used against her or wielded by her for advantage. I enjoyed the backdrop of the feminine world that this book so richly invokes; the roles of woman as mother and lover, and the concepts of fertility, birth and rebirth.

A great start to a series, and, in my opinion, Sara Douglass’s best.

9/10 labyrinthine dragons

©2014 High Fantasy Addict. To read the full review on the High Fantasy Addict website please click on this link.

Goodreads: The Betrayal of Arthur

betrayal-of-arthur-2013-cover“This is a wonderfully interesting book that examines history and characters of the Arthurian legend. Written in a very accessible style, Douglass carefully outlines the origins of the legend, especially examining where the various elements came from. The various character analysis are most interesting, concluding that Merlin and Arthur are actually, given what they are commonly understood to be able to do and their role in the legend, rather dismal failures. This fascinating book will interest those with knowledge of the Arthurian legend and an inquisitive mind.”

Review by Ernest on the Goodreads website.

On the 6th of February 1998 Sara wrote on her personal website “I’m working on my non-fiction Arthurian book at the moment. It is a book that investigates the betrayal theme within the legend. Fantastic. All to do with sex and incest and medieval penances. The arthurian tale is a very medieval tale in its images and in its strong moral overtones, and it is fascinating to read some of today’s novels and see how authors struggle to ‘modernize’ an epic that is so medieval it has almost lost relevance for today’s world.”

The Betrayal of Arthur was originally published in 1998. Pan McMillan re-released it on 1st October 2013 in electronic format, you can download it from Momentum here.

Anniki’s Bookcase: Enchanter

Enchanter-rereleaseAxis has fled to Talon Spike, the home of the Icarii, where he must learn to wield his Enchanter powers to fulfil the Prophecy. Somehow he must lead the Icarii and the Avar back into Achar, defeat his half-brother, Borneheld, and reunite the former kingdom of Tencendor under his rule.

Meanwhile, Gorgrael waits impatiently for winter, to continue his destructive drive into the heart of Achar.

Douglass skilfully moves her characters through this fantastic world where family ties can be deadly and love does not always conquer all.

As a middle book, there aren’t too many surprises in Enchanter. It wasn’t boring, but I wanted to hurry through it to get to the next book, and see how this story ended.

©2013 Anniki / Anniki’s Bookcase. To read the full review on the Anniki’s Bookcase website please click on this link.

The Axis Trilogy #2: Enchanter was published in the US and Europe as The Wayfarer Redemption #2: Enchanter.

SMSA: Threshold

threshold-2008-rereleaseThreshold by Sara Douglass is a prequel to her popular Darkglass Mountain series. And unlike most prequels, in my opinion, it out rates the series as a whole.

A word of warning though: there are some disturbing scenes of infanticide and domestic violence in this book, although it could be argued that these create the necessary level of horror at the wrongness of the Magi’s work and as well as emotional poignancy.

Nevertheless, this is a strong ‘unputdownable’ book.

©2012 Melanie Ryan / SMSA. To read the full review on the SMSA website please click on this link.

Tales From Oz: The Devil’s Diadem


The first thing I do before borrowing from the library or buying from a bookshop is to methodically search the shelves for books by my favourite authors that I haven’t read. I love that feeling of exhilaration and anticipation on finding an unread gem.

Australian Sara Warneke, a.k.a. Sara Douglass, is a writer I automatically seek out. I’ve been escaping to her intricately created fantasy worlds for many years, eagerly awaiting her offerings. It was like Christmas when I discovered each of the Axis, Wayfarer Redemption and Darkglass Mountain instalments.

What follows is an enthralling account of love and betrayal and good versus evil combined with the supernatural and the documented religious beliefs, mores and politics of the age. I was particularly impressed the book ended on a surprising note. I was so sure I had unearthed the plot.

Although The Devil’s Diadem was written as a one-off story I can’t help wishing it was a continuing saga. Australia and the world have lost a truly great storyteller. Vale Sara Douglass.

©2012 Andie Gatti / Tales From Oz. To read the full review by Andie Gatti on the Tales From Oz website please click on this link.

Scaryminds: The Hall of Lost Footsteps

 “We have enough to last us another year” – Margery

Quite often review sites become the abode of strange bedfellows, and on the face of it I would have to say one of the stranger mixes is renowned fantasy author Sara Douglass appearing on the pages of ScaryMinds. It’s like either a dream come true for this site, or Douglas’ worse virtual nightmare. Hey Sara, in cyberspace no one can hear you scream.
But if you were to dig a little deeper, as is our wont, you might just be in for a pleasant surprise as Douglass heads off the bright path into the deep dark woods. If you definitely don’t like horror then either Ms Douglass is going to shock the hell out of your expectations, or you might just be pleasantly bushwhacked by what the genre can offer in the hands of a skilled wordsmith.
The Hall of Lost Footsteps is available from most notable Aussie online stores, and a number of foreign sites as well. If needing more information then hit the official Ticonderoga site for all the good oil.

Shades of Sentience: The Hall of Lost Footsteps

HallofLostFootsteps-200x300The Hall of Lost Footsteps is a collection of short stories by Sara Douglass that also includes a short co-written with Angela Slatter (who I reviewed here), containing fifteen pieces of short fiction, six of those being based within The Axis Trilogy. These pieces are fantasy with a twinge of horror, a well-measured balance that keeps you unable to put the book down while transported to a completely different world.

What’s refreshing about Sara’s work is that her stories aren’t written with that forceful thrust, hoping to shock or disgust the reader. They’re written in a way that reminds me of a storyteller, passing down a tale through the generations – a sing-song lilt of well-thought prose. They state what’s happening, as though it is fact.

Personally, I would like to add that she’s the reason I discovered fantasy. A friend recommended BattleAxe and from there I was hooked. She’ll always have a special place on my bookshelf, and I found it hard to read this anthology because this is it – this is the last Sara Douglass work to be printed, when, as we do with our favourite authors all the time – I crave more.

This doesn’t disappoint, however.

©2011 Katharine Stubbs / Shades of Sentience. To read the full review by Katharine Stubbs on the SentientOnline website please click on this link.

Suzanne Johnson: The Devil’s Diadem


So I was excited to get The Devil’s Diadem by Sara Douglass. First, it’s a standalone fantasy, so I knew I could read it without feeling lost. Second, there’s not a single weirdly apostrophe’d, unpronounceable name. Third, it has to do with medieval plagues and alleged witchcraft and demons and all those historical British things that make my eyes light up like my terrier’s when she sees a new bag of chicken jerky coming into the house. *Nod to Shane O’Mac the Irish Terror Terrier.*

Great characters, crisp writing, and a story that leaves you guessing as it takes twists and turns…all makes for a great read. It’s kind of a sad, thoughtful book despite moments of lightness, but I loved it anyway.

©2011 Suzanne Johnson. Suzanne Johnson is a fantasy author published by Tor in the USA. To read the full review on the Suzanne Johnson’s old blog please click on this link. You can find out more about Suzanne and her work on her official website.

Click here to see more reviews of books by Sara Douglass!

Geeks of Doom: The Devil’s Diadem


Sara Douglass is a master of foreshadowing. The tension is palpable in the very first scene when Maeb meets the Earl of Pengraic, a gruff, most unwelcoming man who immediately regards Maeb with disdain and suspicion, possibly because he walks in on her meeting his devastatingly handsome son, Lord Stephen, while the two are making goo-goo eyes at each other.

A truly gifted storyteller, Douglass paints such lush, vivid descriptions of every scene that intimately connect the reader to the time, place, and people from beginning to end with zero lag time in between. The Devil’s Diadem is exceedingly well-written and extremely hard to put down.

The characters are all richly drawn and endearing, even the background ones, including Maeb’s horse, Dulcette. It’s a magical story with more plot twists and complex mysteries than the Coney Island Cyclone has clackity wooden slats, both being equal in the sheer force of their creation. From one page to the next, you never see what’s coming. While complex and action-packed, Douglass takes great care that the reader never gets lost in the tumult. It’s a true edge-of-your-seat kind of read.

©2011 The Book Slave / Geeks of Doom. To read the full review on the Geeks of Doom website please click on this link.

Click here to see more reviews of books by Sara Douglass!