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.

OzLit: BattleAxe

battleaxe-1steditioncover-TonyPyrzakowskiBattleAxe, 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.