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.

SF Site: StarMan

starman-1stedition-usaIt’s no secret that fantasy fans like their sword and sorcery in heroic slabs. Well, no one gives readers their fantasy in more massive doses than Sara Douglass, and no one hits that magical high more precisely. In StarMan, the epic Wayfarer Redemption series continues with an expanse and a vision that dwarfs other -ologies that have gone before it. Is it any wonder that Wayfarer series is the most successful in Australian history?

The challenge in plotting a series of this length and complexity is genuinely daunting, but Douglass meets it with aplomb. Despite the mammoth size of each volume, she never sacrifices character definition, setting detail, or pacing. One of the most refreshing things about her prose, in fact, is the simple, plain-spoken dialogue that manages to convey dignity, callousness, simplicity, and madness without venturing into flowery or archaic language.

StarMan is a hefty chunk of a book, I won’t lie to you about that, and it’s best read that way. Sit down when you’ve got plenty of time to weave yourself into the complex story and come to your own understanding of the even more complex characters ruled by the Prophecy. Did I mention this passionate, bittersweet adventure is far from over? More volumes are already available, if you know where to look, and, something tells me, after you read this gem, you’ll start searching.

Copyright ©2002 Lisa DuMond / SF Site. To read the full review on the SF Site Reviews website please click on this link.

Readers Read: Starman

starman-1stedition-usaStarMan by Sara Douglass In this third entry in the six-part Wayfarer Redemption series, Axis SunSoar (the Starman) struggles to fulfill the prophecy of WolfStar, the great patriarch of the Icarii people.

In StarMan, many questions are answered about the characters’ motivations and several storylines are neatly tied up. But, luckily for Sara Douglass fans, enough loose ends remain to lay the groundwork for sequels.

Douglass, a fixture on the Australian bestseller lists, is known for her exotic worlds, complex plots and characters, and an emotional depth to her characters. American audiences are just beginning to appreciate Sara Douglass and her readership is sure to grow over time.

©2002 To read the full review on the Readers Read website please click on this link.

OzLit: Starman

starman-1stedition-shauntanThe wait is over. Starman has landed!

For those readers who, like myself, were captivated by the first two books of Douglass’ Axis trilogy, BattleAxe and Enchanter, the final instalment in this Manichean saga, appropriately entitled Starman, has now been released. The last book in a trilogy is often neglected in favour of its prequels, yet the final instalment represents the summit of all that has transpired before. What often happens is that the final text is placed in the unenviable position of being judged almost solely on the basis of its predecessors’ performance – as a type of lengthy conclusion. This means that the literary merits of a third book run the risk of being largely overlooked in favour of the outcome of the trilogy as an entirety. In the case of Starman, the reader anxiously ploughs ahead in the hope that the promises made in the first two books will be realised in the way s/he desires them to be. Does the Prophecy of the Destroyer conclude appropriately? Or are the author’s contrivances unsatisfactory in terms of reader wish-fulfilment? The final battle between Axis and Gorgrael is filled with presentiment and unexpected presences. Starman, and indeed, the first two books, have filled the reader with anticipation of this event and whilst the results are magnificent, the book refuses to let the reader ignore the literary qualities and subtle poetics that flow through the action. It has an energetic, dramatic, and surprising conclusion that will continue to delight and disturb readers long after they have turned the last page.

Starman is bursting with magic and mayhem and there is a cast of new characters and places who all contribute to its fantastical structure. There are the wonderful chitter chatters, the witty polar bear Urbeth, and the sisters of the Temple of the Stars, to name a few. We finally get to visit the Island of Mist and Memory and uncover Azhure’s unlikely ancestry and incredible destiny. WolfStar continues to weave the threads that connect the characters together and is instrumental in bringing the book to its horrifying conclusion. WolfStar is “humanised”in this book but, it seems, at the expense of his mystery. StarDrifter, on the other hand, will amaze and delight, as will Shra, Goodwife Renkin and Caelum. The Avar continue to pose a conundrum and are shrouded by a suppressed violence; their role in the future of Tencendor is not certain. And, finally, the Sentinels return and continue their quest, but be prepared – it has a heart-breaking twist.

The psychological and physical battles between the two major forces, Gorgrael and Axis, continue unabated and with shocking consequences. Gorgrael manages to complete his force by recruiting and corrupting the beleaguered Timozel; thus the traitor of the prophecy is exposed in all his glorious weakness and contempt. The reproductively insatiable Gryphon continue their bloodthirsty conquests, and I think a warning is appropriate: the descriptions of their murderous tactics should not be read on an empty stomach. The battles are convincing and, as a result, often nail-biting reading. The only flaw in the rapid ascent towards the climax is the sudden onset of Gorgrael’s self-doubt. While on the one hand, this can be read as a psychological inevitability, on the other, I found it puzzling, and a little too convenient. His sense of his own invincibility was quickly undermined by the sometimes spurious machinations of the DarkMan and, as necessary as these manipulations were, I felt the scenes involving the two of them lacked the authenticity of some of the other episodes.

This is only a very minor flaw in a marvellous and compelling fantasy epic. Axis truly comes into his own, but he continues to be matched in courage, resourcefulness, and rewards by the incomparable Azhure. This is what I particularly like about Douglass’ work – the women have a life and purpose of their own which is not subordinate to or even reliant upon men. Azhure, as I noted in a previous review, is a beautifully realised fantasy heroine; she has strengths aplenty, and flaws as well. And I think the twist on motherhood and mother love that Douglass provides the reader with in this book is a daring and, in many ways, strangely satisfying gesture that also, cleverly, leaves the way open for a sequel.

Starman has Faraday returning 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. Her mysterious gift to Rivkah is a type of tender retribution whose consequences are still to be revealed. 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.

Overall, I believe Starman offers everything the other two books promised – and more. It will alternately delight, shock, frustrate, excite, and sadden. It is an absolutely thrilling tale of breathless adventure and lusty romance, of bitter revenge and unquenchable hatred, of quiet dedication and deep passion. It seeks to answer all the questions posed by BattleAxe and Enchanter but, in typical Douglass fashion, it raises some more as well. Prepare to be deliciously frustrated by what is left unsaid!

Douglass is, without a doubt, the finest fantasy writer in Australia today; this trilogy has established her as the Starwoman of this genre – I look forward to reading more of this imaginative and talented writer’s work. If the characters of The Axis Trilogy do not cry out to her to continue their tale, then I think her eager readers should.

©1996 Karen Brooks

Review by Karen Brooks for OzLit, 1 November 1996. Reproduced in full with permission.