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.

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.

Readers Read: Enchanter

enchanter-us-1steditionThis is the second book in the six-part Wayfarer Redemption series by bestselling Australian author Sara Douglass, which is now being released in the United States.

Sara Douglass is new to American fantasy fans, but she has quite a following in Australia. Her world building abilities are excellent, and her high fantasy epic will also have plenty of appeal to romance lovers. There is magic, adventure and passion here, as well as a skillfully told story and vivid characters. Lovers of epic fantasy have quite a treat for them with the release of Sara Douglass’ works in the United States.

©2001 ReadersRead.com. To read the full review on the Readers Read website please click on this link.

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

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 Eidolon.net website please click on this link.

OzLit: Enchanter

enchanter-1steditionFantasy sequels are so unpredictable. Not only is the wait between instalments interminable, too often the first book in a new series sets up expectations in the reader that are often dashed in a miserable and disappointing fashion when the second book appears. This occurs, generally speaking, for two reasons: firstly, because the sequel is so much better that it renders its predecessor invalid and by association makes the reader suspicious and feeling like s/he is the victim of the literary market (the Black Trillium, Blood Trillium books for example), or secondly, because it is banal by comparison. Eddings and McCaffrey have, despite their prolific outputs, avoided this situation so far; Lackey and Norton, on the other hand, after a brilliant opening novel (Elvenbane), produced a boring and disappointing follow-up. Enchanter, Book Two of The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass, I am pleased to say, not only meets readers expectations, it also confounds them!

In BattleAxe Douglass introduced us to a fantastical land bursting with resplendent characters whose destinies were all being controlled by a cryptic prophecy. Enchanter lures the reader even further into the labyrinthine depths and unpredictable purposes of the Prophecy of the Destroyer while continually posing the question: who is the architect of the prophecy and what is his purpose? A purpose that turns more sinister with each page.

The book is long, but is broken into numerous chapters. This type of divisioning is a signal of clever marketing as it makes the book, despite its length, very accessible for either slow or fast readers; it can be comfortably put down and picked up again without a great sense of disorientation. I also liked the fact that the chapters are titled — an indication of their contents, though some of the titles seemed to be the result of creative desperation rather than subtle guidelines!

What I found particularly enthralling about Enchanter was the fact that you can not anticipate either the characters or the action. Just when you think you have solved a riddle or predicted an outcome, the story twists and confounds even the most rational of observations, thus managing to titillate in unexpected ways. This is partly due to the introduction of some new actors like the tattooed Ho’ Demi and his band of “savage” Ravensbundmen, the knowledgeable and generous Ysgryff, the daunting Alaunt, and the deadly but beautiful Wolfstar…but wait, there is more! The familiar characters appear too: the Sentinels, the dogmatic Belial, the vain and oh-so-sensual Stardrifter, Borneheld and the rest of the company. And behind all this magic, death and mystery lurks the abhorrent Gorgrael whose inventiveness for evil explodes with devastating results. There are deliciously gory and often deserved deaths, there are frequent hard and furious battles, and some of the most imaginative spell-weaving I have yet encountered. There is blood, sex, love, compassion, and a good sprinkling of utter fear, and for those of you with stalwart morals…hang on. The reader is also, finally, taken along the wonderful Homeric “watery Pathways” of the Charonites and on an unforgettable journey to the gates of life and death.

Throughout Enchanter Douglass makes good uses of anachronies to give her characters richer histories and therefore more meaningful textual presences. This type of character genealogy is not often found in this genre, relying as it does on the threatening present and portents of an unknowable future to deliver its impact. Sometimes the histories are given as a retrospective to explain an apparently illicit romance, or sudden ill-feeling: convenient yes, but effective too.

At first I was a little disappointed at the treatment (or lack of) that Faraday, the central female protagonist of the first book receives, however, this is more than compensated for by the ever-growing and formidable presence of the mysterious Azhure. 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 (and indeed the trilogy!) than anyone would have foreseen. Enchanter is as much her story as it is Axis’s.

Enchanter may start a little slowly, and even disjointedly, but these minor aberrations are rapidly replaced by lyrical, tight and imaginative prose. This book is a sequel par excellence. It draws both characters and readers further into the land of Achar and the prophecy entwining us all in its riddles and spell-binding promises. The book tantalises AND delivers.

Book One, Battleaxe, was exciting new territory, compelling and satisfying; Book Two, Enchanter, is utterly enthralling and unputdownable…what does Douglass have in store for her ever-so-patient fans with Book Three, Starman?

This reader, for one, can’t wait to find out!

©1996 Karen Brooks / OzLit. Reviewed by Karen Brooks of the University of Wollongong for OzLit on 6 March, 1996. Reproduced in full with permission.