Too 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.