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.

Fantasy Book Review: BattleAxe

There was a time in my life where I felt that nothing good would ever come out of Australian entertainment. I was right, and I’ll always be right, as long as I continue to ensure that “Australian entertainment” doesn’t refer to Australian literature. That’s not to say that Australian literature isn’t entertaining, but more to ensure that I am once again right.

That being said, over the past 12 months I have come across several brilliantly talented Australian fantasy authors who really know how to write. If nothing else, it bodes well for me, an aspiring author, that my country can produce fantastical literary talent.

Of those Australian writers one of my favorites is Sara Douglass. Born in South Australia, Sara Douglass was born Sara Warneke, but probably assumed that Warneke wasn’t a name you wanted on the front cover of a book. Her first foray into fantasy was Battleaxe, published in 1995, and the beginning of the Axis Trilogy.

Douglass manages to keep your attention all through the book, despite jumping perspectives every chapter or so. We are introduced to an intricate cast of characters, one part mortal one part mythical and fated. Characters that you think are nothing more than passing attractions soon become imperative not only to the story itself, but to you. Lesser characters, as is always the case for me at least, make up the large majority of my favorites.

BattleAxe is very much part one of three books, and you are left suitable anticipating the next book. Thankfully, for us at least, the entire trilogy (and sextet) is on shelves somewhere.

Picking up these books is definitely recommended. The writing is easy to follow, and though not as refined as the likes of Hobb and Barclay, is measurably excusable in her first literary outing and normally not distracting.

Rating: 7.6/10 – Douglass manages to keep your attention all through despite jumping perspectives every chapter or so.

*note* in the USA and most European countries, the Axis Trilogy and the following Wayfarer Redemption trilogy are one six book series. Not so in Australia though, where they are kept in their original separate trilogy status, but obviously linked in content. *note*

©2007 Joshua S Hill / Fantasy Book Review. To read the full review on the Fantasy Book Review website please click on this link.

Australian Book Review: BattleAxe & Enchanter

battleaxe-1steditioncover-ShaunTanenchanter-1steditionPaperback originals with colourful covers: they may look downmarket, but they mark an interesting new publishing direction in Australia. These three genre fantasy novels are the first in a new list of science fiction and fantasy books being published by HarperCollins Australia, in a country where publishing in these genres – outside of the young adult market – has been minimal, and often unsuccessful.

BattleAxe is a commercial genre fantasy in a way that Sabriel is not, which is to say that it cleaves more closely – at least on the surface – to a set of generic expectations involving in this case a Quest, Rites of Passage, a War of Light against Darkness, powerful mages, kingdoms to be fought for, and a selection of princesses and other women of great beauty and charisma. A cynic might argue that for this reason, Sara Douglass’ BattleAxe is an ideal title with which to launch a line which – published as paperback originals – must home in on the mass-market sales. Titles that appeal only to small intellectual cults and coteries are not sound commercial sense, not, at least, when launching a new kind of book.

But there is no need to be cynical at all. The Axis Trilogy (only two books published so far) turns out to be a wonderfully quirky and intelligent romp, in the way it plays variations on familiar fantasy themes. You often think you know what is coming next, especially as Douglass’ comparative newness as an author shows up in the innocent flag-waving with which she telegraphs important plot turns hundreds of pages ahead; but then something comes along to thoroughly surprise.

Did I say this was a feminist book? Well it is, but it’s the sort of feminism that allows really spunky men to have a place in women’s universe, too. So be warned.

You can tell from all this that either you give up before you begin or plunge deep into a wildly romantic (but then again rather ambivalent) world of detail poured on detail. I recommend the total immersion technique myself. Once you get used to how complicated fantasies like this work, they can give a lot of pleasure. Douglass’ books are compulsive page-turners, and by no means childish. Behind these, for example, is a debate about the nature of religion that is quite firmly worked out – and, once suspects, anti-Christian in essence, though nowhere is Christianity directly mentioned.

©1996 Peter Nicholls / Australian Book Review. Battleaxe and Enchanter, by Sara Douglass; Sabriel by Garth Nix, reviewed by Peter Nicholls for the Australian Book Review, September 1996. To read the full review on the website please click on this link.

Out of the Ashes: BattleAxe

battleaxe-1steditioncover-TonyPyrzakowskiHands up those who feel that Fantasy writing has been highjacked by prolific, burned out ‘name’ authors. As many as that? Well, Fantasy lovers, don’t despair. I’m here to tell you about a new writer who puts them all to shame – and best of all she was born and bred and is living right here in Australia.

Sara Douglass made an early switch from nursing to academia, topping off her studies with a PhD in early modern English history from the University of Adelaide. She now teaches medieval history at La Trobe University. Her first book is just stunning.

Yes, there’s a prophecy. Yes, there are half brothers, one of whom the beautiful Faraday loves, the other she marries. Yes, evil stalks the land and yes it grows stronger with every page we turn. Can anyone stop it? You bet! But not by the end of BattleAxe, the first book of a trilogy by this talented author.

The wonderful thing about Sara Douglass is that she has not yet learned to pace herself, and her book teams with ideas and characters and more sub-plots than you could shake a stick at. Her academic background lends weight to her kingdoms (yes there is a map) and her nursing background underpins her battles with bloody realism.

If I have a cavil it is with the book jacket. The hero resembles a Schwartzenegger clone, the horse has just been goosed, and monsters, in my opinion, should be left to the imagination. Ignore the cover and buy the book. Read it. You’ll be delighted.

All together now, Fantasy lovers. What do we want? Book two! When do we want it? Now!

©1995 Laurie Molloy / Out of the Ashes. Reviewed by Larie Molley for Out of the Ashes, Issue 21, December 1995 (no longer in print). This review originally appeared on Sara Douglass’s website in full.

Aurealis: BattleAxe

The reprint of BattleAxe with cover by Shaun Tan.

Sit back, glass of port in one hand, Loreena McKennitt on the stereo, the latest Janny Wurts novel in hand … did I mention Janny Wurts? Not a bad comparison. Douglass’ writing is not yet so slick, but she has greater empathy for her characters and a sense of humour missing from Wurts. There is heart to BattleAxe, and more happens in it than in the average Wurts’ novel.

We open with the obligatory prophecy (incidentally, the worst piece of writing in the book), which tells us that there is due to be an epic war between brothers which will decide the fate of the three races of Achar.

Something mysterious and ugly is killing soldiers in the frozen north; refugees struggle south with tales of flesh-eating ghosts. Axis Rivkahson, BattleAxe of the Axe-Wielders of the Seneschal, is dispatched north with his troops to do battle with the enemy. On the way north he falls in love with his brother’s betrothed, meets two priests on the shore of an enchanted lake, finds he is the only being able to read an untranslated prophecy …

Fantasy readers will find the plotting familiar, but not tedious. Parts of the novel are beautifully handled. I enjoyed it.

Complaints? There are a couple. The prophecy gives away too much. Douglass is a historian by profession and has dragged in names and other elements of mythology from a number of cultures, resulting in a blend which doesn’t form a cohesive whole. The Charonites are a deus ex machina. The novel has a poorly-executed, patronizing cover which subliminally tells the punter that the publisher thinks the whole idea of fantasy is a crock of the proverbial.

Don’t believe it. If you enjoy epic fantasy, then give this novel a chance.

©1995 Bill Congreve / Aurealis. Reviewed by Bill Congreve for Aurealis, Issue no 15, p. 80 (back issues can be ordered from the Aurealis website). This review originally appeared on Sara Douglass’s website in full.

OzLit: BattleAxe

battleaxe-1steditioncover-TonyPyrzakowskiBattleAxe, the inaugural book in a new fantasy trilogy by first-time author Sara Douglass, has been thrust on to the market with all the energy and vigour of the axe-wielding army that rides tirelessly through its pages. The cover proclaims that BattleAxe is written in the tradition of the work of those other fantasy giants, David Eddings, Janny Wurts, and Robert Jordan, while the accompanying publicity posters declare the book to be a “movie for the mind”: cinemagination! The marketing strategies for this fantasy are, to say the least, overpowering; but those who dare to venture beyond what I can only describe as an inappropriate and aesthetically displeasing jacket design (Hercules meets Rambo), will not be disappointed.

In creating BattleAxe, Sara Douglass has drawn heavily on her own academic background, evoking metaphorically and metonymically Western myths and legends to create her fantastical world. There is minimal preamble; instead, with no apologies, the reader is plunged straight into the narrative which does, at times, cause a sense of discontinuity, forcing the reader to find and form connections. While adhering to the literary conventions of fantasy fiction, Douglass still manages to offer her readers an original tale. There is a strange new land (Achar), and a map with which to navigate the unfamiliar territory. There are three principal races – the winged Icharii, the arboreal Avar, and the dogmatic Acharites – who are all entwined in a seemingly unresolvable conflict. There is also an ancient and enigmatic prophecy which becomes manifest as the story unfolds casting a delightful gloom over the action as various characters desperately seek to decipher its riddles. And, according to formulaic exigencies, the threat of universal annihilation is omnipresent assisting the story’s high state of dramatic tension.

The plot of BattleAxe is fundamentally Manichean: the good are tempted by, but rarely succumb, to evil; and the bad, well, they are simply beyond redemption. The central messianic figure, appropriately named Axis, has to resolve, not only the circumstances threatening to disrupt his land, but his own internal struggles (which include being the victim of the worst case of sibling rivalry in the history of this genre).

On first reading the book does not appear to overtly challenge the status quo: standard hierarchical structures are extant throughout, and the men and women are, fundamentally, richly but stereotypically portrayed. However, there are some characters who relieve any accusations of mediocrity by displaying interesting psychological and sexual quirks – weaknesses that ultimately become their strengths. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that BattleAxe is not only the quintessential fable of good versus evil it appears to be: it can also be read as a clever parody of the medieval Catholic church or, alternately, as a pasquinade on contemporary bureaucracy. There is a sense in which the book definitively satirises the oppressive and repressive nature of institutionalisation and those who willingly (if not always consciously) uphold its questionable practices. Equally important is the environmental message that dominates the book; however, the ecopolitical theme is heavily embroidered within the overall tale making it exceptionally palatable and plausible in terms of the genre.

There is much to commend this book: it is full of humour, pathos, magic, and some truly terrifying monsters (the Skraelings are a masterpiece of the grotesque). There is bloodshed (a lot) and battles (with interesting variations), and some well constructed characters. The novel ends with virtually no resolution, just a slight hiatus in the trajectory of the action which, even after 650 pages of breathless progression, has not yet reached its apex; a clever manipulation of events that ensures the sequel’s purchase. It’s weaknesses, if indeed these are weaknesses, lie in its strict adherence to the generic conventions of fantasy, though this can also be read positively as a subversive move against the irresistible forces of change. Amidst all this, it is important, I feel, to avoid over-theorising a tale of this calibre as intellectualising can potentially diminish its intentions which are, after all, to thrill and incite the imagination. BattleAxe is a novel which ultimately succeeds in doing both, promising that The Axis Trilogy will be a worthy addition to the growing body of both Australian and international fantasy fiction.

©1995 Karen Brooks / OzLit. Reviewed by Karen Brooks of the University of Wollongong for OzLit on 21 October, 1995. Reproduced in full with permission.

Eidolon: BattleAxe

battleaxe-1steditioncoverToo often in this column, a single maxim, hoary and cliched, rears its ugly head. So many books – intentionally or not – mislead the reader both in terms of content and quality that it becomes all too easy to simply throw one’s hands into the air and recite the protective mantra over and over again.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t…”

BattleAxe by Sara Douglass is the first Australian fantasy release from HarperCollins, and in terms of the packaging I’ll have to admit that I was more than a little uneasy about having to read this 674 page tome. To begin with, the cover art is very poor, albeit fairly accurate in terms of content. And once the book was opened, my inquietude merely increased with the sighting of not one but two maps (usually a strong indicator that the writing won’t be strong enough to convey a sense of location on its own), plus a prophecy. Add the glossary at the back of the book, and I found myself becoming less enthused by the minute. But a job is a job, a review a review, and I do have my pride, contrary to popular belief.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t…”

Granted, there is nothing startlingly original in BattleAxe – a land threatened by evil, a mighty young leader of dubious parentage, a beautiful yet unattainable woman, a Prophecy in the making, mystic races, ancient hatreds, and plenty of magic, battles, sacrifice, betrayal, love, honour and mysteries. It’s all standard heroic fantasy iconographics, constructed in a fairly unsurprising manner.

“Don’t judge a book…”

So why did I enjoy this novel so much, with its awful presentation, its cliched premise, its cookie cutter characters? Quite simply, BattleAxe is by far the most professionally written fantasy novel to be written in Australia to date. For me to become involved in a fantasy novel, as I’ve expressed ad nauseam in previous reviews, it must succeed in three key areas – pacing, character and scenery. The prose is very consistent, starting with events designed to draw the reader in and never really letting go for the rest of the book, the characters well drawn and generally sympathetic, if not always realistic – this is fantasy, after all – and the descriptive writing successfully manages to balance brevity and clarity, an admirable achievement.

One very welcome aspect of BattleAxe is its grittiness, a sharp contrast to the pastel-hued romantic fantasies which have been the dominant force in Australian fantasy recently; the opening sequences are nasty enough to let the reader know early on that this is going to be a rough ride in places. Sara Douglass herself has a PhD and teaches in Medieval History, which is most likely the grounding for the novel’s depiction of the harsh realities of a non-technological society, giving the book a fair amount of credibility.

“…by its cover.”

For once, the stock-standard “In The Tradition Of” blurb on the back cover is actually pretty justified. The book is a very easy read, considering its hefty weight, and it rarely slows down in its pace, propelling its protagonists through a variety of experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, before ending at an appropriate and dramatic juncture in the storyline. In short, BattleAxe is a well-written and effective fantasy novel which feels a lot shorter than it looks. It is the best Australian fantasy novel I’ve experienced to date, and is certainly better than many international novels of a similar ilk. Perhaps the boundaries between Australian genre fiction and that of the rest of the world – the xenophobically defensive “us and them” syndrome discussed in Greg Egan’s article in the last issue – truly are becoming meaningless. BattleAxe’s only real weakness is in its presentation, which may deter even the most ardent fantasy reader. But in every other regard, Sara Douglass’ debut novel can easily hold its own in the cutthroat international fantasy marketplace, and for the first time in a very long time I find myself actually looking forward to the next book in a fantasy series.

All together now – “Don’t…”

©1995 Martin Livings / Jonathan Strahan / Eidolon. Reviewed by Martin Livings for Eidolon, Issue 19, October 1995, pp. 101-102. Reproduced in full with permission.

The Inquisition: BattleAxe

Take one axe for inspiration, one brilliant imagination, and five weeks of weekends and evenings; mix, and what do you get? BattleAxe, book one of The Axis Trilogy, an exciting new epic fantasy by Sara Douglass.

BattleAxe begins the quest by Axis, leader of the elite Axe-Wielders, in a struggle to unite the peoples of the Plough, the Wing and the Horn under one leader; to fight a new and evil force rising to threaten the land of Achar. BattleAxe is a richly threaded tapestry which through the fantasy world it creates, echoes with brilliant clarity, European medieval society.

Throughout the pages of this epic, we are presented with rich detail of medieval life. The opening scene of the work depicts a childbirth not far removed from the medieval reality faced by many women. One does not have to venture much further to recognise the medieval catholic church as providing the basis for Achar’s religious organisation, the Seneschal; whose beliefs (especially regarding the landscape, a major theme in this work) come directly from medieval catholic teachings.

For many ‘medieval history’ students a lot of this may sound a little familiar, which is not really that surprising, as Sara Douglass is no other than La Trobe Bendigo’s very own, and much admired, medieval history lecturer Dr. Sara Warneke.

Much of the inspiration for Sara’s work comes from her daily toil as a medieval historian. For example, the religious culture of the Avar (the people of the Horn) is an amalgamation of European pagan religions, many elements of which still remain in modern western culture and are identifiable by readers. Sara brings to life many of the themes she lectures on in her courses. One of the most vivid is the medieval concept of time. Her use of natural divisions, such as ‘Flower-month’ and ‘Deadleaf-month’ recreates the seasonal calendar of Medieval Europe.

BattleAxe is Sara’s first foray into fantasy. Without anything to read one weekend, Sara decided to write something herself.

Inspired by a small axe she found in an Adelaide shop, BattleAxe was born in a five-week flurry of creative activity.

Initially intended for only a tiny audience (herself), BattleAxe would later fill 660 pages, and lend itself to a much larger audience. BattleAxe is published by HarperCollins, and was in bookstores within a year of creation

Sara’s prolific pen has already produced the second and third volume of The Axis Trilogy, Enchanter and StarMan will be released respectively in April and December of next year (1996) and promises ‘action scenes aplenty’.

BattleAxe is an exciting, action-packed fantasy which promises enchantment, daemons and adventures – for a fantastic read you cannot go past BattleAxe, it is a must for medieval history students. For the non-historian, it’s an inspiration to join one of Sara’s courses!

©1995 Jason Benjamin / The Inquisition. Reviewed by by Jason Benjamin for The Inquisition, published August 30 – September 13, 1995. The Inquisition is an independent student newspaper of La Trobe University, Bendigo. This review originally appeared on Sara Douglass’s website in full.

Redland Times: BattleAxe

battleaxe-1steditioncover-TonyPyrzakowskiAustralian author Sara Douglass has written what could be the first of one of the most popular science fantasy trilogies to arrive in the last few years.

BattleAxe has all the ingredients of such fantasies – magic, battles and intrigue as well as the most evil of people and creatures.

What makes it work so well is that Miss Douglass, a lecturer in early modern European history at Bendigo University, understands her characters and makes them very believable.

Axis is the bastard son of a Princess, who has been taken by a religious order and turned into a fighting machine to protect the kingdom – the so-called BattleAxe.

He commands the best fighting force available, while his evil half brother Borneheld bides his time as WarLord.

A thousand years before these people had driven out the ‘others’ – the winged Icarii and the Avar and burned and destroyed the forests these people loved.

Now a new evil comes from the North and is driving these forbidden people before it and back into the Kingdom of Achar.

Axis has a mission to turn back the evil, but on his way to his destiny finds that he himself is more than he realizes.

This is a cracker of a book and instantly lands Douglass among luminaries like Stephen Donaldson and David Eddings.

©1995 Dennis Neville / The Redland Times. Reviewed by Dennis Neville for the The Redland Times, first published on Friday July 28, 1995.This review originally appeared on Sara Douglass’s website in full.