Sara Douglass has come a long way since her first venture into the world of fantasy fiction with her inaugural novel, Battleaxe. Now, with numerous accolades, the highest sales in speculative fiction in Australia, and no less than five novels she has, God forbid, a reputation to uphold.
Sinner: Book One of The Wayfarer Redemption, the first book in the second trilogy on Tencendor and its troubled peoples, not only secures her standing as Australia’s finest fantasy novelist, it ensures her pinnacle of success remains unchallenged! With the publication of Sinner, Douglass’ star is now a leading light in the Australian literary firmament.
Despite these high praises, I must say I approached the book with caution. Fans of this genre have come to expect trilogies: even decalogies (Eddings and Jordan for example); however, it is a big risk reopening a world and its people to further imaginative exploration. Afterall, readers gain great satisfaction from closing a book and laying its characters to rest. In this instance, Axis beat Gorgrael, Azhure and Axis live happily ever after, and all of Tencendor is united…or so it seemed. Douglass knew better. Even with these happy ruminations, questions remained… what would happen to the wretched Drago and his siblings? What of the metamorphosed Faraday and her son? And what of the “gift” Faraday bestowed on Rivkah? Was it simply a child? Where did Wolfstar disappear to? And what did it mean that Axis and Azhure became gods?
Sinner answers all these questions and more. It is Tencendor: The Next Generation, and it does not disappoint. The children of the War of the Axe are rich in character, full of idiosyncrasies that will amuse and repel, and capable of both enormous courage and incredible stupidity. The title Sinner may refer to one specific character, but the book manages to explore the concept of sinning in all its manifestations. From Drago’s primal sin, to Riverstar’s misplaced desires, to Zared’s treason, sin permeates the book. Old sinners, such as Stardrifter and Wolfstar are again present in all their winged masculinity and with their inherent complexities. Axis and Azhure, newly deified, are exposed in a unique and somewhat unflattering light revealing that they too, despite being gods, are not exempt from human weaknesses. It is perhaps in revisiting these characters that Douglass displays a fault of continuity in characterisation. I am not sure I am convinced by Axis and Azhure’s lack of parental concern and even downright coldness towards various of their progeny, particularly in the light of their behaviour in the first trilogy. This is, however, a minor point, and is more than compensated for by the swiftness of the action and the remorselessness of the narrative pace which has the reader turning pages at ripping-speed.
Other characters from the first trilogy also make surprising reappearances. Without spoiling the plot, I can say Niah makes a brief entrance and one of the most unforgettable exits in fantasy narratives. Douglass certainly turns notions of matrilinear descent and maternal feelings upside-down! Orr, Spikefeather, the Rainbow Sceptre and the formidable and beautiful Star Gate all reappear and, in some cases, disappear and transform in ways in which will leave the reader astonished.
The mixture of new and old characters that populate this book are fully-rounded and compelling, convincing and dramatic. Surprisingly, for this genre, the people and places encountered are created with pathos and a depth of understanding that is normally sacrificed to action. The book is more sexual than the first trilogy, but necessarily so. Sex, desire, lust, love: all of these emotions and actions permeate the book and become a powerful political statement about interhuman and human relations and their often tragic outcomes.
Readers have come to expect uncompromising monsters from Douglass’ books, but in creating the demons in this novel, Douglass has surpassed herself. Through the interesting intersection of technology, science, astronomy and psychology, the Questors appear and, to the horror of Tencendor, threaten to stay. The Questors are seductive and dangerous. They represent that which is utterly alien and yet, in the drastic emotions they arouse, all too familiar. Whilst travelling through the stars that lie beyond the boundaries of the Star Gate, the Questors have made some powerful allies. Their evil associates have an unquenchable desire for vengeance and their will to live has been maintained by focusing their desire for revenge beyond the realms they now inhabit into Tencendor itself: their former home. It is in the liminal realm of the universe beyond the Star Gate that the once dead and the strangely undead meet in an orgy of unrestrained retribution and power exploding onto an unprepared Tencendor. The finale of this book will leave you astounded and, if this is possible, pleasantly disturbed.
Douglass also manages to plume some Freudian depths with a focus, in this text, on the significance of dreams as an unconscious return of the repressed, and the labyrinth that lies buried under Carlon as a metaphor for the cultural unconscious of Tencendor. The maze, and its deadly centre, haunt the latter pages of the book and its unknown and ultimate purpose spills over into the remainder of the trilogy. Sinner itself reads like the maze at its centre. With each chapter the reader is taken further into its heart and, just when the answer is within reach, the narrative twists and turns into new, dark, and exciting regions.
Overall, Sinner is Douglass’ finest book to date. It has been crafted with flair and imaginative skill. Douglass has taken risks with this book: gruesome deaths, sinful sex, contradictory characters who both disappoint and thrill, and she has daringly introduced science into her fantastical world. For Douglas these risks have certainly paid off resulting in a daring, masterful and ultimately very satisfactory sequel.
Sinner is a breathless rollercoaster of a read… but listen here Pilgrim*… don’t take your hands off the rails, because, thank goodness, the ride ain’t over yet!
* This is the title of Book Two in the Wayfarer Redemption.
©1997 Dr Karen Brooks / OzLit. Reproduced in full with permission from Dr Brooks.