Eidolon: Hades Daughter

hades-daughter-aus-releaseSara Douglass is the author of three bestselling fantasy trilogies, as well as stand-alone novels and historical non-fiction. She was also a lecturer in medieval history at Bendigo University, and brings to her novels a level of detail that makes them not only intriguing, but oddly convincing. Hades’ Daughter is the first book in her new four-book series which spans millennia and promises to be as complex as the labyrinths at its heart.

The Troy Game tells the story of a contest between deities and mortals. In the game, cities are protected by magical mazes, from the Great Founding Labyrinth of Crete to the London Underground. Solve the maze, and the city falls; destroy the Game, and release the evil that the mazes have entrapped.

Douglass does a wonderful job of juggling cultures and centuries. Her detailed descriptions of ancient Mediterranean and British mythologies and lifestyle are evocative and convincing, as are the glimpses she gives of 1930s London. Her system of magic—the rituals required and its use as a political tool—is one of the most interesting I’ve read in a fantasy novel (and it manages to explain hopscotch and London Transport). The beginning grabs me instantly, the plotting is intricate and fast-moving, and I was a third of the way through the book before I realised that I didn’t like any of the characters.

If you like Macchiavellian and labyrinthine plots, with lots of seduction and betrayal, set in an exquisitely crafted fantasy world—and you’re prepared to spend a few hours in the company of vicious egomaniacs—this is a great book. Just watch your back while you read it.

©2003 Stephen Dedman / Eidolon. To read the full review on the Eidolon.net website please click on this link.

Eidolon: The Betrayal of Arthur


Even in resolutely secular, ‘dun-coloured-realist’ Australia, the Arthurian motif has appeared, in both fantasy and mainstream novels. Now Australia’s top fantasy author tackles the Once and Future King on his own turf-the turf of the borderlands between myth and history. This non-fiction exploration of the doomed and dooming Arthur, those closest to him and the images of him, reveals Sara Douglass’ deep knowledge of the area, and her historian’s understanding of the Middle Ages in particular. She does not gush about Arthur-indeed, in many ways it could be said that her King has very heavy feet of clay indeed. But she is true to the complexity and the shifting nature of the legend, and the ways in which it has been interpreted and re-interpreted over the centuries.

Douglass’ analysis of character is interesting and thought-provoking, and remind us very much that Arthurian romances were not only magical journeys, but also some of the first ever psychological ‘novels’ (in fact in French, a novel is still called ‘un roman’: the novel certainly does not date from the 18th century).

As well, Douglass thoroughly examines the attempts to place Arthur in history, and the quasi-spiritual cult surrounding him, both in medieval times and now, and concludes that though Arthur should not be portrayed as saviour, it is indeed the legend, and not some never-to-be-proven historical ‘real man’, that is of deepest importance to the culture: a conclusion with which I absolutely agree.

Readers note: a ‘romance’ in medieval terms was a narrative written in one of the Romance languages-ie those influenced by Latin, rather than in Latin itself. These romances were popular literature written in the common tongue, and the true ancestor of modern fantasy.

©2000 Sophie Masson / Eidolon. To read the full review on the Eidolon website please click on this link.

Eidolon: An Interview with Sara Douglass


Sophie Masson interviewed Sara Douglass in 2000 for Eidolon magazine. She has graciously given us permission to reproduce her interview with Sara in full. Sophie Masson is a writer and published author based out of country NSW in Australia. More information can be found on her website at www.sophiemasson.org.

SM: The Betrayal of Arthur is a departure for you. Has it always been a project you wanted to do?

SD: No. I’ve never been a particular ‘Arthur fan’. The book came about through a series of fairly bland circumstances. Some three or so years ago I’d been approached to write a CD-ROM game on the Arthurian legend. I put lots of time and research into it, my agency put lots of time and work into it, but the deal fell through. I was left with some research and an outline on my hands. I handed the outline to my agent, Lyn Tranter, and said with some disinterest (after a year or so of negotiations on the game I was sick of the topic!) that she could do with it what she wanted: she auctioned the proposal, and Pan Macmillan put in the winning bid. So that’s how the book came about.

Personally, I had been aggravated for many years by the hype surrounding the Arthur legend and the mysticism and ‘deep meaning’ that people kept trying to attach to it-I was aware through teaching some aspects of the legend at university that people simply didn’t know what the legend meant, and why it had been constructed as it had . . . and I relished the opportunity to at least strip away all the hype and sugary gloss and New Age ridiculousness. I met some truly bizarre people while doing the ‘out and about’ part of the research . . . there are at least five down-and-out middle-aged men I’ve met in central Victoria alone who are convinced that they are the modern incarnation of Merlin and they are personally going to Save The World. They fell in love with all the hype, it made them feel important, and they have no idea that Merlin was an absolute failure as wizard, prophet and general washer-upper.

SM: How important has the Arthurian legend been in your own fiction writing?

SD: As far as I am aware it has been no influence at all. As I said, I am not a fan of the legend. Medieval history rather than popular myth has been my inspiration.

SM: You delineate very well, in your book, the different ways in which the legend has been used and interpreted through the ages. What is its most modern manifestation? And what does it represent, for modern readers?

SD: That’s an almost impossible question to answer. The most modern manifestation? I think there are two-the semi-scholarly push to prove that Arthur (in whatever form) did exist, and the New Age Arthur-a kind of a secular Christ for the disenfranchised and lost. What does the legend mean for modern readers? As you know, every book and every tale means something different to each reader. Broadly, however, perhaps the legend represents hope… I find this incredibly sad, because so many people are now feeling so disassociated from modern society and values that they cling to a myth that holds no hope and no factual truth. Possibly the legend represents a means to access our past . . . today most people of European descent are incredibly disassociated from the past (as most Europeans have been throughout history) and they need to find a vehicle to take them back to discover a cultural historical identity (to put it more simply, something they think they might be able to be proud of in their ancestry, because they find little to be proud of in contemporary society). Of course, what happens is that people simply take the bare bones of the Arthurian legend (Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot and a bit of sleeping around) and graft whatever they want on to it. So . . . like so much of history, the Arthurian legend becomes whatever it is needed to become for people to justify their own fantasies and need to be important.

SM: Why do you think the legend has had such a long and hardy life?

SD: I think I have answered that with the last sentence above! The Arthurian legend has had such a long and hardy life because a) it is a rollicking good tale of adventure and sinful sex and b) it can most beautifully be used by all and sundry to justify their own agenda-the kings of England, as I explain in the book, have used it that way for almost a thousand years, and today people continue to use it . . . the lost claim to be a reincarnation of Merlin/Arthur/Geunevere in order to make themselves feel important and to justify building up their own personal little doomsday cults (I know I’m sounding cynical . . . but the number of absolutely crazy-and dangerously crazy-people I met researching this book has left me deeply depressed about the manipulative and dangerous aspects of human nature); how strange it is that Mordred never seems to be reincarnated! Whatever, the legend has had such a long and hardy life because it lends itself to being used; it can be reinvented by every age in order to justify whatever agenda happens to be on the go at the time.

I’ve often thought that the psychological explorations in the Arthurian legend are written in the guise of adventures because they were a product of an age when life was very hard and physically demanding. In our time, when psychological forays are practically THE only adventure left to Western people, who live such soft lives, do we need even more the physical adventures of Arthur and his knights?

I doubt very, very much that many people understand the legend in terms of psychological forays. It has been my experience that people firmly close their eyes to anything but the golden facade of chivalric adventure. It is simply a tragic, romantic tale combined with a bit of magic-and that kind of thing has always been popular.

SM: Do uncertain times represent more fertile ground for the ‘return’ of King Arthur in the popular consciousness?

SD: Yes, as every other myth, cult, legend etc. Uncertain times call for ‘strong men’, someone who can save the day. I still dissolve into laughter whenever I think of people associating the concept of ‘strong man’ with Arthur-the man couldn’t boil an egg without causing a global catastrophe!

SM: You seemed to cast a distinctly cool eye on many of the characters and motifs in the Arthurian story. What’s your feeling about the whole legend now, having lived with it for so long?

SD: As I’ve mentioned, I’ve never been a particular fan of the Arthurian legend, and, quite frankly, I’d be happy if I never saw, heard, read or smelt anything about Arthur again so long as I live.

SM: What of the Celtic element of the story-popular in the twelfth century, popular again now. How was it seen then? And now? What do you think ‘Celtic’ means to people?

SD: The Celtic element of the story was popular in the twelfth century? The twelfth century didn’t know what ‘Celtic’ was! I’m not too sure what you mean by that . . . the twelfth century had no understanding or knowledge of their past . . . the only thing ‘celtic’ they knew were the bastard Welsh across the border who should be put to death as soon as possible. What does Celtic mean to people today? Something vaguely to do with lots of pretty, knotted intertwined borders and perhaps a bit of hope from a past society to save them from this one. People who are dissatisfied and disassociated from their contemporary society always seem to go back in search of a Golden Age: today many people feel that the Celtic era was a Golden Age whose ‘deep truths’ can be resurrected to put some meaning back into their own lives. It’s romanticised beyond belief and fact, but at least it keeps the New Age book market healthy.

SM: Going to fantasy-do you think fantasy fulfils a religious role in a post-Christian society such as Australia’s? What do you think of fantasy in general-is it in a healthy state-or are there too many ‘carbon copy’ fantasies?

SD: I don’t think fantasy fulfils a ‘religious’ role as such, it simply gives people a means to access a world of mysticism, magic and hope: the basic fantasy trope of Good versus Evil has been a best-seller ever since humankind first attained conscious thought, and yet our materialistic, rationalistic and scientific society doesn’t leave much room for the Good vs. Evil explanations for whatever goes bump in the night. As for what do I think of fantasy in general-I can’t answer that. I’m one of the many fantasy authors who never read in their own genre. The last fantasy novel I read right through was perhaps some seven years ago and that was only because I was stuck in the bed with the flu and the only book within reach was one of Robin Hobb’s that a friend had left on the nightstand. I don’t even actually classify myself as a ‘fantasy’ writer. I write, and editors and publishers and readers classify me as fantasy. I was mildly surprised when HarperCollins, when they first picked me up, thrust me firmly into fantasy. Recently I’ve been offered a deal by Tor in the USA, and one of the things that I love about the offer is that they want to promote me in the general book market as much as in fantasy.

SM: Why is the medieval so often the template of fantasy? As a medievalist yourself, are you impressed or annoyed by the representation of an imagined Middle Ages in fantasy?

SD: Again, I can only answer the first half of this question, and only as it relates to myself. I use the medieval world because I am a medieval historian and I know my way around the medieval world and mind very well. I think, generally (and, yes, I know Terry Pratchett will disagree vehemently with this!), the reason why the medieval world is used as a template is because the magical is not allowed to exist within a scientific society . . . and science began to extend its grip on western society from the 1600s onwards. Our ‘collective western mind’ has been taught over and over (since the days of the fairy stories we were told as children) that the magical can exist only in a pre-modern world.

SM: What’s next for Sara Douglass?

SD: Too much. Currently I am doing a major rebuild of my web site (and in fact going to a new web site: www.saradouglass.com no less!), building a company, and trying to find enough time to write my next trilogy set in fourteenth century Europe. (Called The Crucible, the first book The Nameless Day will be available in May 2000 . . . there, I’ve done my self-promotion bit!)

©2000 Sophie Masson / Eidolon. You can read the original interview on the Eidolon website here.

Locus: The Nameless Day

the-nameless-day-1steditionSara Douglass’ ninth novel and first in a new trilogy, The Nameless Day, is a slight departure from her highly successful Tencendor series, setting aside the more obvious tropes of fantasy, and concentrating instead on Douglass’ background as a historian.

The way medieval Europeans understood the world is starkly different from how we understand it today. People believed that they lived in a world of evil incarnate, where demons and angels walked the streets, and where God and Satan were in preparation for the final battle. Douglass carefully couches her story in terms of this worldview, which effectively blurs the boundaries between history and fantasy, making it uncertain as to whether her characters are really encountering angels and demons, or simply believe that they are.

This medieval worldview clashes with modern sensibilities, something that Douglass exploits.

At one point Douglass shows us the family of a talented woodcarver who has been required to work on a cathedral in Paris for a year, all unpaid and leaving his family to depend on the charity of his Guild to survive the honour. It’s an effective moment that clarifies just how different the world was.

Reminiscent of a rich blend of the historical fantasies of Mary Stewart and Guy Gavriel Kay, The Nameless Day is a strong opening to what should be an interesting and rewarding series.

©1999 Jonathan Strahan / Locus. This review originally appeared in Locus but can be found on To read the full review on the Eidolon.net/SF Online Reviews website please click on this link.

Eidolon: BattleAxe

battleaxe-1steditioncoverToo 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.