If there is one thing a reviewer can confidently state about the work of Sara Douglass it is that it does not disappoint. Douglass has once again produced a novel of epic and fantastical proportions. Pilgrim, the second instalment in The Wayfarer Redemption teases, beguiles, shocks, gladdens and saddens: she drops her readers into an emotional chasm and doesn’t release them – she taunts them with, of all things, lilies!
So what can readers expect from this book after Sinner promised so much. Pilgrim fulfils the promises of its narrative predecessor and then offers all sorts of other imaginative treats and sombre repasts for the reader’s delectation. The TimeKeeper Demons have exploded from the Star Gate into the land of Tencendor and commenced their frenzied feeding, sucking the life and soul out of the land and its unwitting inhabitants. Faraday, Drago, Askam, Leah, Zared, Caelum and the once were gods – Axis and Azhure – appear helpless to prevent the destruction of all that they have nurtured and loved. They watch from the shadowy protection of the sacred trees and the inhospitable mountains as the Demons unleash their malignance on the seemingly unprepared world of Tencendor… but is the land the really the victim the grotesque Demons and the hapless StarLaughter believe it to be?
As the survivors of the Demon plague journey across the land to find a means of destroying the unwelcome visitors, so too the Demons attempt to fulfil their own frightening task: to bring their horrific master Qeteb back to life. Their journey is literally a soul-destroying event for the land while, paradoxically, being a soul-reclaiming journey for their master. Running parallel to the Demons disruptive and disgusting adventures throughout the land, are those of the principal protagonists. The main characters divide into a series of groups and begin a desperate search for solutions. Their search, whilst based primarily in the physical world, comes to represent an inner journey as well. The internal seeking is often as difficult, unpleasant and dark as the outer one. Some of the characters grow and metamorphose as a result of their pilgrimage; others do not but one gets the feeling that a suitable fate awaits all the individuals who dare to become pilgrims of their own souls.
Readers should take note that Douglass introduces some new elements into her tale confounding and fulfilling generic expectations. Science (fiction) is given a strong role within the tale as is mysticism and didacticism and, for the reader, these additions are more than satisfying and add an extraordinary dimension to an already magnificent tale. There is even a strong religious motif running through the book of death and rebirth; though to attribute this motif to any one religion would be to do the novel itself a dis-service. There is a sense in which the powerful forces of life, death and rebirth transcend any religious affiliation or, indeed, any essentialist interpretation. Douglass uses this motif to enhance and disrupt the gloom and doom of the book after all, promises of life-ever-after are difficult to keep and this sort of passport to immortality is not meant to be available to all. The question then arises – who will be granted access to such a sanctuary and all that it offers and under what conditions?
New characters are, once again, introduced. The cover of the book, which, I must admit, on first glimpsing seemed disappointing, becomes all too apparent and very relevant. The reptilian centrepiece of the jacket is an inspirational creature that wreaks both magic and mayhem on the various inhabitants of the suffering land. His bright coat and crystalline claws remind the characters (and the reader) that amidst the greatest darkness there is light and laughter. The Demons themselves become fleshed out as characters: vicious, maniacal and unrelenting – Douglass’ villains are always a Machiavellian delight. Old characters reappear and, it is at this point, that potential readers should be warned: Douglass shows no mercy. Those that sinned in the past finally pay for their crimes. The retribution that Wolfstar’s receives for the cold-blooded murders of his wife, child and the hundreds of Icarii children is unforgettable. It occurs as a series of unspeakable acts that ooze horror, violence and abhorrence that will leave readers feeling as though they too have been contaminated by the grey miasma that roams the land. Misery, in this novel, is all but unrelenting arising as it does out of actions, consequences and some very interesting secrets to which the reader is finally made privy. Drago also suffers physically and psychologically as a consequence of his earlier crimes. Drago’s punishment for crimes unproven and known is not surprising but, when it arrives is swift and, in true Douglass fashion, extraordinary. I think it would be very interesting to study Douglass’ novels as a commentary on dysfunctional familial relationships – she works family dynamics very well and makes no apologies for either the lack or excessiveness of parental and sibling love that permeates her work.
On a more positive note, Urbeth reappears and tells a tale, the Donkeys reappear and lose their tails and an old friend from the Axis trilogy with a long tail trots through the pages to finally claim his long deserved reward for faithfulness. The father of one race introduces himself and the mother of all the races that populate the planet tells the story of her many loves and her wild, unpredictable children. All of these characters add depth and scope to the story ensuring that, unlike the antihero who dominates the trilogy, the reader does not want to leave the narrative maze that Douglass has created. For answers to the puzzles Douglass has left the reader with, like the transformative potential of the land, Drago and the contents of his magical sack, the outcome of romantic relationships and the ravages and anguish of Qeteb and his Demon pack, the reader will have to wait.
Pilgrim is never predictable – except in the way that all good fantasy fiction can and should be. Characters are redeemed, reclaimed, regrown and all undergo transformation in this marvellous bildungsroman narrative. As the story approaches its end, Douglass has set the scene for a marvellous conclusion. This tale has it all: adventure, romance, horror, death, murder, birth, rape, grief, madness, humour and pathos. Where will Crusader, the final instalment in this thrilling trilogy, venture? Knowing Douglass, it will be to places and spaces that no reader has ever gone before.
©1998 Dr Karen Brooks / OzLit. Reproduced in full with permission from Dr Brooks.