BattleAxe, the inaugural book in a new fantasy trilogy by first-time author Sara Douglass, has been thrust on to the market with all the energy and vigour of the axe-wielding army that rides tirelessly through its pages. The cover proclaims that BattleAxe is written in the tradition of the work of those other fantasy giants, David Eddings, Janny Wurts, and Robert Jordan, while the accompanying publicity posters declare the book to be a “movie for the mind”: cinemagination! The marketing strategies for this fantasy are, to say the least, overpowering; but those who dare to venture beyond what I can only describe as an inappropriate and aesthetically displeasing jacket design (Hercules meets Rambo), will not be disappointed.
In creating BattleAxe, Sara Douglass has drawn heavily on her own academic background, evoking metaphorically and metonymically Western myths and legends to create her fantastical world. There is minimal preamble; instead, with no apologies, the reader is plunged straight into the narrative which does, at times, cause a sense of discontinuity, forcing the reader to find and form connections. While adhering to the literary conventions of fantasy fiction, Douglass still manages to offer her readers an original tale. There is a strange new land (Achar), and a map with which to navigate the unfamiliar territory. There are three principal races – the winged Icharii, the arboreal Avar, and the dogmatic Acharites – who are all entwined in a seemingly unresolvable conflict. There is also an ancient and enigmatic prophecy which becomes manifest as the story unfolds casting a delightful gloom over the action as various characters desperately seek to decipher its riddles. And, according to formulaic exigencies, the threat of universal annihilation is omnipresent assisting the story’s high state of dramatic tension.
The plot of BattleAxe is fundamentally Manichean: the good are tempted by, but rarely succumb, to evil; and the bad, well, they are simply beyond redemption. The central messianic figure, appropriately named Axis, has to resolve, not only the circumstances threatening to disrupt his land, but his own internal struggles (which include being the victim of the worst case of sibling rivalry in the history of this genre).
On first reading the book does not appear to overtly challenge the status quo: standard hierarchical structures are extant throughout, and the men and women are, fundamentally, richly but stereotypically portrayed. However, there are some characters who relieve any accusations of mediocrity by displaying interesting psychological and sexual quirks – weaknesses that ultimately become their strengths. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals that BattleAxe is not only the quintessential fable of good versus evil it appears to be: it can also be read as a clever parody of the medieval Catholic church or, alternately, as a pasquinade on contemporary bureaucracy. There is a sense in which the book definitively satirises the oppressive and repressive nature of institutionalisation and those who willingly (if not always consciously) uphold its questionable practices. Equally important is the environmental message that dominates the book; however, the ecopolitical theme is heavily embroidered within the overall tale making it exceptionally palatable and plausible in terms of the genre.
There is much to commend this book: it is full of humour, pathos, magic, and some truly terrifying monsters (the Skraelings are a masterpiece of the grotesque). There is bloodshed (a lot) and battles (with interesting variations), and some well constructed characters. The novel ends with virtually no resolution, just a slight hiatus in the trajectory of the action which, even after 650 pages of breathless progression, has not yet reached its apex; a clever manipulation of events that ensures the sequel’s purchase. It’s weaknesses, if indeed these are weaknesses, lie in its strict adherence to the generic conventions of fantasy, though this can also be read positively as a subversive move against the irresistible forces of change. Amidst all this, it is important, I feel, to avoid over-theorising a tale of this calibre as intellectualising can potentially diminish its intentions which are, after all, to thrill and incite the imagination. BattleAxe is a novel which ultimately succeeds in doing both, promising that The Axis Trilogy will be a worthy addition to the growing body of both Australian and international fantasy fiction.
©1995 Karen Brooks / OzLit. Reviewed by Karen Brooks of the University of Wollongong for OzLit on 21 October, 1995. Reproduced in full with permission.