karen brooks

20th Anniversary of BattleAxe

battleaxeI am absolutely thrilled to announce that Sara’s publishers, Voyager, are releasing a special 20th anniversary edition of Sara’s very first novel, Battleaxe, in March this year. Featuring quotes from wonderful writers such as Juliet Marillier and Fiona McIntosh and a foreword by me, Karen Brooks, and with a gorgeous new cover, readers can once more (or the first time) relish this tale of love, brutality, mystery, treachery and magic.

Battleaxe was the book that brought Sara and her fantastic stories into the literary sphere and reader’s lives the world over. I hope you will all enjoy re-reading and/or discovering Axis, Rivkah, Faraday, Gorgreal and the entire cast of complex, amazing characters  and places as much as I did. My only wish is that Sara was here to see the way in which her work lives on and continues to not simply capture, but grab readers over and over.

The cover is both simple and yet elegant and reflects the major themes of the book. These are exemplified in the tree cross-section, done a blood-shed red, and the axes, so neatly crossed and positioned in its centre. Here, in symbolic form, we have religions clashing, nature and culture and those who stand on these (in the world of Tencendor) diametrically opposed sides intersecting, and the threat of combat and destruction looming.

The parchment background and bold, Stygian black of the title and curlicues signify both the historical research underpinning the book and the power of the written word. In the world of Battleaxe, this is neatly juxtaposed against oral culture and the songs and magic that complete it.

Finally, there is Sara’s name embossed in gold – gold for the richness her work has brought to so many lives and in honour of the memory of a wonderful women, friend, and writer. Can you believe it’s been 20 years since Battleaxe first burst its way onto the fantasy novel scene? I know I cannot. It really does seem only yesterday when Sara found a tiny plastic axe, picked it up and took it home and allowed a story to unfold before her mind’s eye.

The axe that started it all.

That little axe is now glued to my computer (see my very poor picture on the right – that is the edge of my mac you can see). It is my muse; a reminder of Sara every time I write (like I need one – I don’t really, but it does provide comfort). It gives me inspiration, hope and, most importantly, a kick up the bum when I’m lost for words or feeling flat – something Sara did for me (and I for her) often.

I hope that you are as excited as I am by this beautiful new edition of a most beloved book.

Warmest wishes,


Welcome to Sara Douglass Worlds

Welcome to SaraDouglassWorlds.com, the new cyber home of the extraordinary writer, Sara Douglass, originally located at SaraDouglass.com. Many of you will know (and I apologise in advance to those of you who are about to learn this) that on the 27 September 2011, Sara died of ovarian cancer after a long and extremely painful struggle. After her death, I was told that she had entrusted her literary estate and creative legacy to me.

sara-karen-in-nonsuch-gardensAllow me to introduce myself, my name is Karen Brooks and I was Sara’s friend for over twenty years – a writer and academic like Sara who was not only my beloved friend, but mentor and inspiration as well. Along with my husband, Stephen, I was Sara’s primary carer for the last nine months of her life. The best and worst thing I’ve ever done…

Humbled, privileged beyond words with Sara’s amazing gift, it has taken almost three years to resurrect her website after it became swallowed by red tape, ridiculous legalities and what appears to be a great deal of ineptitude on the part of various domain providers and hosts. Not even lawyers’ letters and emails, threats and promises could restore what was now rightfully mine – this precious legacy I’d been given. I despaired – I really did. But, just when all seemed lost, a woman named Gina (and new fan of Sara’s) swooped into my life and accomplished what I begun to think impossible. Due to her perseverance, incredible contacts, energy and knowledge (as well the generosity and support of my own website host and designer, Oliver from MediaBox), we now have saradouglassworlds.com and nonsuchkitchengardens.com to enjoy.

Thank you Gina. I cannot recommend this lady highly enough.

While I’ve made the decision to maintain nonsuchkitchengardens as a memorial site, this one is different in that not only does it contain some material you may not have seen before, I will be posting updates when relevant and invite you, Sara’s fans, to post your views and share your insights and pleasure in her work with each other. If you have anything you’d really like to know or see, please feel free to ask – though, be warned, asking doesn’t always guarantee the answer you might like 😉

I have also duplicated some material across both the Nonsuch site and this one as some things are too important not to – such as Sara’s Silence of the Dying blog post.

I hope you enjoy the SaraDouglassWorlds.com as much as Gina and I have enjoyed bringing it back. For those of you who knew Sara and her wonderful imagination, it’s a bitter-sweet experience revisiting your favourite places and characters, I know; for those of you who have only just stumbled upon her work, I envy your voyage of discovery.

Whoever you are, old fan or new, you are a friend and I warmly welcome you to the worlds of the wonderful Sara Douglass. May you soar with the stars.

Karen Brooks
8th April 2014
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Karen Brooks: Loss, Grief and the Healing Power of Words

Editors note: This article was taken from Karen Brook’s personal blog.

I have been absent a while, haven’t I? For that I’m so sorry and please, I ask that you read and accept this blog as a rather poor attempt to both apologise  and explain why before I beg your forgiveness and let you know that I’m back and invite you to return as well…

karen-sara-selfie-kitchenThe reason I’ve been gone is twofold: I’ve had several operations this year, related to post-cancer complications, and which mean I now have a pacemaker. It’s been hard to become accustomed to and I’ve had periods of terrible illness and pain. But all that pales by comparison with my second reason for deserting this cyberspace and puts what I’ve been through into perspective – the terrible illness and death of my beloved friend, Sara Warneke who most of you know as the writer Sara Douglass.

Ten and half months ago now, my partner, Stephen, and I shifted temporarily to Hobart, Tasmania, to care for Sara as she tried to deal with the last stages of ovarian cancer. I have written about this elsewhere, mainly in my obituary for Sara on the Voyager website a day after she died.  You can read it here or on the Voyager website.

(I should add that Lucy Sussex also wrote the most amazing obituary for Sara that’s appeared in many newspapers.) I also write about Sara – her life, influence and works as well as our relationship that spans twenty years – in the Introduction to the beautiful compilation of her short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which was published posthumously by Tinconderoga Publications.

HallofLostFootsteps-200x300Together, these, along with a brief piece I wrote about Sara in Australian Author, explain the months and weeks that led up to her death and give a glimpse into our long-term friendship. What none of these do, however, is elucidate the impact her death has had in other ways and on other people – not just me, but Stephen, her other very close and loving friend (and mine too), Dr Frances Thiele (who adored and was in turn, adored by Sara), or the grief felt by her family, other friends, and loyal fans.

While I always knew the day of Sara’s death would come and, as she became sicker, tried to prepare myself (as did Stephen), it wasn’t until almost a week after she died, that the reality of her absence hit me. She really wasn’t going to phone or text me again. When I went to her house, she wasn’t going to open the door and fold me in one those tight hugs I loved receiving. She was gone… for real. For good. When the realisation struck, I felt like the sun hadn’t gone behind a cloud so much as imploded; as if the lights had gone off in not only my house, but, for the time being, my life, and plunged me into a grey world of shadows and murkiness leaving me to stumble and misapprehend.

Sara had been my anchor for the last nine months, my life had been tied to hers in the most intimate and loving of ways and now, suddenly, I was cast adrift. I could no longer talk to her, hold her, share my thoughts and fears, and she couldn’t with me either. A part of my world that, despite the encroaching presence of death was remarkably light and love and hope-filled, had been swallowed by darkness and, worse, an enormous silence that I didn’t see, despite everything being there in front of me, coming. It was the strangest and scariest of sensations. There was not the silence associated with quietude or stillness, but an agitation that had no way of being expressed or relieved. As if the frequency we operated on and within could no longer be tuned. There was only static, no clear signal. Weighed by grief, I swam in circles, barely staying afloat, my ears pricked for a sound, a sign, for a signifier that this lostness was temporary. For Stephen it was the same. We lived and worked in a haze, thinking we were coping when in reality, we were sinking into this hungry silence.

And yet…

Every time we spoke of her, recalled something either with each other, or Fran, or someone else including the many and beautiful homage on FaceBook and other cyber-pages, the silence cracked and the load diminished slightly. Memories came in the most unexpected form and ways. The first time Sara’s cat, Luther, walked into my arms and curled into my neck like he’d always belonged, giving me the audible cuddle that we call a purr, an image of Sara with all her cats surrounding her filled my mind and put me strangely at peace.

sara-frannie-kitchenI laughed out loud, scaring the other cats and, most of all, myself – but not Luther. After that, each time one of the others came to us for attention, licking, purring, kneading our legs and arms in the way cats do, putting you on edge as you wait for the claws to stick, we found our pain eased and smiles bloomed where tears had once fallen.

Then there were the notes – to me, herself, to others – that we found and treasured. Simple things, like remembering to pay the ‘butcher lady,’ put the bins out, remind Karen about Cromwell (one of the Birmans); there were lists of ‘things to do’ which conjured both sadness and delight at her orderliness; or the folder of recipes that Sara used and which we all enjoyed at her table together, using produce she grew in her garden and which we harvested and cooked as a family. These little paper treasures rip a hole in you when you find them, but then they catapult you back to the moment and the unexpected recall has its own terrible beauty. I loved finding these things, how they would throw us off emotional balance, only to repair our hearts after all. Together, they amounted to a record of a person and life that was rich, complex, giving and simple at the same time – one that we were privileged to share.

When the gardens of Nonsuch began to bloom a few weeks ago, our souls felt renewed. Here was the life that, together, Sara and, later when she became too sick, Stephen under her instructions, planted and nurtured. I felt Sara in every new bud, every blossom that burst into life and colour. Bees hummed, butterflies danced and birds sang while the supine cats, grooming themselves in the sunlight, pretended not to watch them. This was her creation, her gift to everyone, continuing, just like her stories will as well.

stephen-sara-mt-wellington-windyAfter weeks of not being able to conjure a word or creative thought and becoming despondent about that, a story, unbidden but so very welcome, took seed in my mind. I was in, of all places,  a Whisky Distillery when it happened, taking me by complete surprise. I was in no ordinary distillery mind. I was in Larks in Hobart with my sister and her friend who were visiting. This place, like so many others around Hobart, has also become a special part of our shared life with Sara. You see, not long after we arrived here, Stephen and I introduced Sara to the joys of a locally made Whisky liqueur – Slainte – that is made by Larks.

It’s like nothing I have ever tasted before – pure golden sweetness followed by a warm caramel heat that coats your throat before it delivers a small kick below the heart. It is magic. The first time Stephen and I tried it, we knew Sara would love it, and bought her some. We were right. Sara called the woman who made it a goddess and swore it was ambrosia. Stephen would ensure there was always some for Sara and Larks, in a spirit of generosity, not only discounted what we bought, but gave Sara a bottle for free with every order as well. That a simple drink could bring so much pleasure amidst so much pain….

slainteIt seems fitting somehow that the first time I returned to this place after Sara died, a place that though Sara had never graced its cosy rooms nonetheless brought her so much comfort and joy, I found a story – the basis for my next novel. It was there, waiting for me, and I accepted the gift of its presence gratefully.

Doing the research and starting the writing process has brought me a healing I never expected. It’s not quick and nor would I want it to be, but it is a sweet and tender ache that brings with it unexpected bouts of sadness followed by moments of sheer joy – joy in the power of words and imagined characters to transport you beyond your own life and propel you into times and places otherwise denied. This is something Sara knew as well and used after her initial diagnosis and towards the end. It might be escapism, but it’s also a blessing. I like to believe, perhaps indulgently, that Sara made sure that tale came to me on that day the way it did. Anyhow, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Every word I write now, I raise an imaginary glass to my darling friend: Slainte Sara.

So, there you have it.  That’s why I’ve been absent from my website and blog – I retreated for a time, firstly to begin my own process of recovery and then to care for a friend who needed me, needed Stephen too. That I needed her just as much was always apparent to me, but her death has made that awareness acute and hard to overcome. She didn’t choose to leave me, us, this life, her life, and that’s why I’ve struggled so hard with her absence: the unjustness of it. What I didn’t expect was that, just as she was in life, she’s there beside me in death and, in my writing, whether it be this blog or the stories I have yet to tell, she will be with me every syllable of the way.

There you are, my friends. I am back. I hope you forgive me. After all, we have a journey to take and I have many tales to tell…

Thank you.

Editors note: This post originally appeared on the website of Karen Brooks. Karen and her husband Stephen were Sara’s carers for the last nine months of her life until she passed away.

Karen Brooks: Obituary

Sara-2011The outpouring of grief that has followed the death of Sara Douglass (Sara Mary Warneke), who died on Tuesday morning has surprised no-one – except, had she lived to see the effect of her passing, Sara herself.

How do I know? Having been Sara’s close friend and confidant for twenty years – and having followed in her career-footsteps (from academic to author; as she did for many others, she both inspired and encouraged me) and being in the process of recovering from cancer myself – I’ve spent the last nine months caring for Sara, along with my husband, Stephen. We shifted to Tasmania at the beginning of the year and have been privileged to share the best and worst of times with the woman who called me her soul-sister.

Though Sara was an intensely private person, when Stephanie Smith, Sara’s editor and good friend at Harper Collins, asked me if I could write an obituary, revealing something of Sara’s last weeks, I agreed. Sara had a deep affection for her readers and fans and loved connecting with them through cyberspace – through the early years of her message board and its various discussions, to her blog and websites (her homepage and the Nonsuch garden) and FaceBook. So, without disrespecting her privacy and with a heavy heart, let me briefly invite you into Sara’s, Stephen’s and my world – a world that with her death, for us at least, has been cast adrift and irrevocably shattered.

Her final weeks were not easy; even the seemingly simple act of showering tired her for an entire day. Nonetheless, Sara maintained her wonderful sense of humour and acerbic wit, and her curiousity and concern for others. She managed to edit and see the publication of what is now her final novel, the magnificent The Devil’s Diadem and even saw (though didn’t read) the advance readers’ copies of her collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, which is being published in November by Ticonderoga Publications.

karen-sara-stephen-selfieAccompanying her to every medical appointment, ensuring she had meals, clean clothes and well-fed cats, Stephen and I spent as much time as we could with Sara and did what we could for Sara. And typically of her, she was incredibly undemanding and often apologised (for what, we still don’t know!). I don’t know how many times she thanked us. We didn’t feel (and still don’t) that we deserved her thanks … we loved her and still do love her and it was a joy to see and be with her, as others who know her can attest.

While she sometimes appeared aloof, it was often because she didn’t hear what was said – Sara was quite deaf and relied on hearing aids – but distant she was not. On the contrary, she was one of the most loving and affectionate people I know who would embrace you in the warmest of hugs and squeeze you tight. I will miss those hugs more than I can say.

Visited by a few dear girlfriends (she was selective about who she let into her life) who travelled to Tasmania to see her, she very much enjoyed their company, but was also glad to be by herself again. She was a very solitary person who lived in her imagination as much as she did in the real world. I think she would be overwhelmed by what people are expressing on various forums now; she would be laughing in her unrestrained and contagious way and shaking her head in bewilderment.

Her final days were, by her choice, in a palliative care ward in Hobart. Despite what she wrote in her forthright and amazing blog, ‘The Silence of the Dying’, Sara chose not to die at home. After two weeks in hospital and then just over two in palliative care, she made the decision, despite everything being set in place (care teams organised, doctor ready, and I was to move in with her), not to return. I think it was emotionally too hard for her – the distancing from her old life had begun. The palliative care ward was comfortable, the ambience was warm, the staff caring, frank and compassionate: just like Sara. There was a garden on the balcony outside her window.

At first she felt guilty that she experienced relief at her decision not to go back home, but we quickly assuaged that and told her it was both normal and perfectly all right to feel such things.

After that, she seemed to find inner peace.

Then, she died.

She died as she lived – on her own terms, in her own time. Her death was quick.

She looked peaceful, serene even, her alabaster skin glowing, her hair softly framing her face. It’s an image that will live in my mind forever.
In accordance with Sara’s wishes, there’s no funeral or formal celebration of her life. She wanted ‘no fuss’. That is so Sara! As I promised, I’m following these wishes – it’s the least I can do.

Sara will be cremated on the 29 September at 10 a.m. There will be three people present. I will read from both BattleAxe (the part where StarDrifter sings the Star Song) and from page 511 of The Devil’s Diadem to the end. I will also read selections from the various tributes that family, friends and fans have left. I will make sure you’re all there with Stephen and me as we say another goodbye.

Then, as the sun sets on Friday the 30th of September, I will spread her ashes over her beloved garden with her cats and a bottle of bubbly as witnesses. I ask that, wherever you are in the world – real and virtual – you raise a glass or pause, and for just a moment, help us send Sara on the first steps in the eternal dance of stars.

I know she’s poised to soar and once she departs, she’ll twinkle brightly forever – in our hearts, minds and every time someone picks up her books and reads her astounding and beautiful words.

Vale Sara.

Editors Note: Karen Brooks had been Sara’s friend for over 20 years and with her husband Stephen was her carer for the 9 months before she passed away.

This obituary was posted on the VoyagerOnline blog, the original post can be read here.


Karen Brooks: The Devil’s Diadem

2011-devilsdiadem-au-coverDouglass’ latest book, a historical fantasy set in mid Twelfth Century England is a fabulously woven, intricately plotted tale of love, loss, familial relationships, courtly politics, religion and faith. Powerful, moving and surprising, it unfurls slowly, almost languidly, steeping the reader in the period and the life of the heroine, the astoundingly lovely Maeb who, when her father returns from the Crusades and dies, leaving her with nothing more than a few rags and her good name, is forced to join the household of the most powerful noble in the land, the Earl of Pengraic, Raife.

Incredibly beautiful, frank and quite feckless in many ways, Maeb is content to serve her kind mistress, Adelie, and care for her sweet children, only when a dreadful plague from Europe sweeps the country, forcing the family to flee to Pengraic castle in the Welsh borderlands, Maeb quickly discovers that someone or something else has other, much bigger plans for her and those she loves.

What follows is an adventure like no other, filled with real characters, heart-ache, beauty, humour and disaster, all against a background of an emerging London, the kingship of Edmond and deadly tensions between the aristocrats, the Church, the Old People and the sacred and profane.

Told in the first-person, this is a hard book to put down – frankly, I couldn’t bear to set it aside. It sweeps you into the past and the lives of the central characters. It’s filled with fascinating factual and imaginative recreations of life in that period (Douglass is also a renown historian), never mind being a rollicking good tale.

As a stand alone, it’s a tour de force for Douglass, as an addition to an already remarkable canon, it’s a triumph.

I know that I could be accused of bias as the book is dedicated to me – a privilege I am so humbled by I honestly cannot express how I feel – but I could not ask for or wish for a greater gift from a wonderful, loving and beloved friend.

Read The Devil’s Diadem and share the experience. You won’t regret it!

©2011 Karen Brooks, reproduced with permission. This review originally appeared on Karen Brook’s blog.

Click here to see more reviews of books by Sara Douglass!

OzLit: The Nameless Day

the-nameless-day-1steditionThe Nameless Day, book one of The Crucible, introduces readers, not only to a new trilogy by Australia’s leading fantasy writer, Sara Douglass, but represents a slight change of direction for the prolific wordsmith as well.

In a former life, Douglass was an academic – a medieval historian – and there is no doubt she has used the knowledge and insights gained in this period to endow this book with an authenticity and richness that is often lacking in historical novels. This, however, is not only an historical novel. In The Nameless Day, Douglass has employed a type of historical faction – that is, a narrative that interweaves historical “fact” with fiction. Drawing on well-known figures in Western history such as John of Gaunt, the Black Prince, Joan of Arc and Hal Bolingbroke and painstakingly recreating old London, and pre-Renaissance Europe, Douglass locates her novel in a parallel medieval earth that is at once familiar and wonderfully strange. History buffs will note the compression of time and characters while fantasy fans will appreciate the otherworldiness and magic that creeps into the story.

In this world, a place and time where church law governs and the inquisition has deftly inscripted its presence, good and evil are at loggerheads. But, rather than drawing a picture of these events in a way Michelangelo might, Douglass ignores binary oppositions and locates herself firmly in the surrealist school. Angels and their voices are not the product of a psychotic mind, but are the lucid mentors of select individuals. Furthermore, demons walk the earth – sometimes wearing an all too familiar shape. As in the past, good and evil are not simply esoteric terms but significant theological and secular realities that are explored through real characters and significant debates and beliefs of a bygone era. And, as Douglass’ fans have come to expect, the resulting story is an uncompromising tale of passion, lust, brutal machinations and humour.

The book opens with the interestingly named friar, Wynkn de Worde (an actual historical figure no less (the appellation is a gift for fantasy writers!), undertaking what can only be described as devilish work. When he meets an untimely end, the archangel Michael is appalled and rapidly ensures the procreation of his successor. The rest of the novel, set in the late fourteenth century, explores the spiritual and profane journey of Brother Thomas Neville.

Thomas Neville is a cold, unforgiving holy prat – there are no other words to describe him. He is a goody-two-shoes with a holier-than-kingdom-come attitude that, as a reader, you just know has to shift. And, as the narrative progresses and glimpses of his unsavoury past begin to surface, sympathy for this misunderstood and cold creature is evoked. In the character of Neville, Douglass has created a flawed yet endearing (yes, even though he is all of the above) anti-hero whose transformation is both longed for and always-in-process. His wanderings around Europe and England take him to many places and involve him in many encounters sexual and otherwise. Colourful characters are sewn into the fabric of Neville’s life and as his perspective widens so too does his attitude to God, man and woman start to change.

Where the book will challenge many readers is in its conception of good and evil. Douglass, using the schism that occurred in cultural and religious thought around the fourteenth century, holds spiritual beliefs and notions of the church, God and humankind up to a mirror and, in the ensuing examination, the reader is invited to look through a glass darkly. There are angels condoning the abuse and use of women, ordering death to newborns while those cast in the role of demons advocate for human rights and the sanctity of home and hearth. The earth is transformed into a literal Manichean battleground and, as the book progresses, what were once clear boundaries, with apparent allegiances, shift and slide. For Thomas Neville and those who believe in the role of the church, what constitutes good and right is no longer so clear cut.

To explain any more of the story would be to destroy the suspense of the plot. It is a tight, well-conceived tale that will sometimes surprise the reader, especially when a well-known figure from the pages of history is revealed warts and all. But that is part of the delight of reading this book. History is popularised – returned to the reader in an immensely enjoyable and palatable form. The two-dimensional people from history books and documentaries are transformed into three-dimensional characters who live, breath, love, shit and fart. Overall, I found this book a joy to read. Douglass has breathed life and light into an otherwise dark age and come up with an wild and uncanny explanation as to why Western culture underwent this huge fluctuation in comprehension around the 1300s. For her old fantasy fans, there is so much in this book to satisfy generic expectations – but there is much, much more as well. Hopefully, it is these extras that will introduce a wider audience to Douglass’ work who will also come to appreciate the quality of her imagination. The Nameless Day is without doubt Douglass’ best book yet. History has never been so picturesque and quirky and fantasy has never been quite so wondrous!

©2000 Dr Karen Brooks, Department of Popular Culture and Media Studies, Arts Faculty University of the Sunshine Coast. Reproduced in full with permission from Dr Brooks.

OzLit: Pilgrim

pilgrim-1stedition-ausIf 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.

OzLit: Sinner

sinner-1stedition-ausSara 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.

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.

OzLit: Enchanter

enchanter-1steditionFantasy sequels are so unpredictable. Not only is the wait between instalments interminable, too often the first book in a new series sets up expectations in the reader that are often dashed in a miserable and disappointing fashion when the second book appears. This occurs, generally speaking, for two reasons: firstly, because the sequel is so much better that it renders its predecessor invalid and by association makes the reader suspicious and feeling like s/he is the victim of the literary market (the Black Trillium, Blood Trillium books for example), or secondly, because it is banal by comparison. Eddings and McCaffrey have, despite their prolific outputs, avoided this situation so far; Lackey and Norton, on the other hand, after a brilliant opening novel (Elvenbane), produced a boring and disappointing follow-up. Enchanter, Book Two of The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass, I am pleased to say, not only meets readers expectations, it also confounds them!

In BattleAxe Douglass introduced us to a fantastical land bursting with resplendent characters whose destinies were all being controlled by a cryptic prophecy. Enchanter lures the reader even further into the labyrinthine depths and unpredictable purposes of the Prophecy of the Destroyer while continually posing the question: who is the architect of the prophecy and what is his purpose? A purpose that turns more sinister with each page.

The book is long, but is broken into numerous chapters. This type of divisioning is a signal of clever marketing as it makes the book, despite its length, very accessible for either slow or fast readers; it can be comfortably put down and picked up again without a great sense of disorientation. I also liked the fact that the chapters are titled — an indication of their contents, though some of the titles seemed to be the result of creative desperation rather than subtle guidelines!

What I found particularly enthralling about Enchanter was the fact that you can not anticipate either the characters or the action. Just when you think you have solved a riddle or predicted an outcome, the story twists and confounds even the most rational of observations, thus managing to titillate in unexpected ways. This is partly due to the introduction of some new actors like the tattooed Ho’ Demi and his band of “savage” Ravensbundmen, the knowledgeable and generous Ysgryff, the daunting Alaunt, and the deadly but beautiful Wolfstar…but wait, there is more! The familiar characters appear too: the Sentinels, the dogmatic Belial, the vain and oh-so-sensual Stardrifter, Borneheld and the rest of the company. And behind all this magic, death and mystery lurks the abhorrent Gorgrael whose inventiveness for evil explodes with devastating results. There are deliciously gory and often deserved deaths, there are frequent hard and furious battles, and some of the most imaginative spell-weaving I have yet encountered. There is blood, sex, love, compassion, and a good sprinkling of utter fear, and for those of you with stalwart morals…hang on. The reader is also, finally, taken along the wonderful Homeric “watery Pathways” of the Charonites and on an unforgettable journey to the gates of life and death.

Throughout Enchanter Douglass makes good uses of anachronies to give her characters richer histories and therefore more meaningful textual presences. This type of character genealogy is not often found in this genre, relying as it does on the threatening present and portents of an unknowable future to deliver its impact. Sometimes the histories are given as a retrospective to explain an apparently illicit romance, or sudden ill-feeling: convenient yes, but effective too.

At first I was a little disappointed at the treatment (or lack of) that Faraday, the central female protagonist of the first book receives, however, this is more than compensated for by the ever-growing and formidable presence of the mysterious Azhure. 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 (and indeed the trilogy!) than anyone would have foreseen. Enchanter is as much her story as it is Axis’s.

Enchanter may start a little slowly, and even disjointedly, but these minor aberrations are rapidly replaced by lyrical, tight and imaginative prose. This book is a sequel par excellence. It draws both characters and readers further into the land of Achar and the prophecy entwining us all in its riddles and spell-binding promises. The book tantalises AND delivers.

Book One, Battleaxe, was exciting new territory, compelling and satisfying; Book Two, Enchanter, is utterly enthralling and unputdownable…what does Douglass have in store for her ever-so-patient fans with Book Three, Starman?

This reader, for one, can’t wait to find out!

©1996 Karen Brooks / OzLit. Reviewed by Karen Brooks of the University of Wollongong for OzLit on 6 March, 1996. Reproduced in full with permission.