peter nicholls

Australian Book Review: BattleAxe & Enchanter

battleaxe-1steditioncover-ShaunTanenchanter-1steditionPaperback originals with colourful covers: they may look downmarket, but they mark an interesting new publishing direction in Australia. These three genre fantasy novels are the first in a new list of science fiction and fantasy books being published by HarperCollins Australia, in a country where publishing in these genres – outside of the young adult market – has been minimal, and often unsuccessful.

BattleAxe is a commercial genre fantasy in a way that Sabriel is not, which is to say that it cleaves more closely – at least on the surface – to a set of generic expectations involving in this case a Quest, Rites of Passage, a War of Light against Darkness, powerful mages, kingdoms to be fought for, and a selection of princesses and other women of great beauty and charisma. A cynic might argue that for this reason, Sara Douglass’ BattleAxe is an ideal title with which to launch a line which – published as paperback originals – must home in on the mass-market sales. Titles that appeal only to small intellectual cults and coteries are not sound commercial sense, not, at least, when launching a new kind of book.

But there is no need to be cynical at all. The Axis Trilogy (only two books published so far) turns out to be a wonderfully quirky and intelligent romp, in the way it plays variations on familiar fantasy themes. You often think you know what is coming next, especially as Douglass’ comparative newness as an author shows up in the innocent flag-waving with which she telegraphs important plot turns hundreds of pages ahead; but then something comes along to thoroughly surprise.

Did I say this was a feminist book? Well it is, but it’s the sort of feminism that allows really spunky men to have a place in women’s universe, too. So be warned.

You can tell from all this that either you give up before you begin or plunge deep into a wildly romantic (but then again rather ambivalent) world of detail poured on detail. I recommend the total immersion technique myself. Once you get used to how complicated fantasies like this work, they can give a lot of pleasure. Douglass’ books are compulsive page-turners, and by no means childish. Behind these, for example, is a debate about the nature of religion that is quite firmly worked out – and, once suspects, anti-Christian in essence, though nowhere is Christianity directly mentioned.

©1996 Peter Nicholls / Australian Book Review. Battleaxe and Enchanter, by Sara Douglass; Sabriel by Garth Nix, reviewed by Peter Nicholls for the Australian Book Review, September 1996. To read the full review on the website please click on this link.