the crucible trilogy

The Ranting Dragon: The Nameless Day

the-nameless-day-uk-editionThe Nameless Day is the first volume in Sara Douglass’s trilogy, The Crucible. While the author lists The Crucible as her favourite of all her series, many readers had mixed feelings about The Nameless Day upon its initial publication. Most of their concerns regarded the vastly different feel of this novel when compared to her previous works (such as the popular Axis Trilogy), and the unconventional choice of protagonist. Nevertheless, in my opinion, having read all three books in the series, I would still recommend The Nameless Day and consider it to be a highly worthwhile read. While it may not suit the tastes of all readers, The Crucible is probably the best historical fantasy series I have ever read, and one of the most intricately plotted and daring fantasy novels in general.

A little bit of everything (done well!)
Once again, Douglass showcases her admirable talent for seamlessly blending elements of different genres into a cohesive whole. The Nameless Day incorporates fantasy, history and romance, while also containing some particularly brutal and gory moments that would put most writers of modern horror to shame. Certain sections, especially at the beginning of the novel, are very dark and reminiscent of early Gothic works such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, full of sinister clergy and malevolent secrets.

Why should you read this book?
By the end of the novel, much is still unclear and many questions remain to be resolved in the following books. However, those who can bear the suspense will be greatly rewarded by this daring and thought-provoking series and the many shocking and unexpected developments it encompasses. All in all, The Nameless Day is definitely worth a read for any fantasy fan who isn’t particularly averse to historical fiction and would like to try something a little more daring and challenging than just another Lord of the Rings clone. However, it does contain substantial violence and various depictions of religious figures behaving badly, which may be unpalatable to some individuals. Hence, you may be wise to refrain from lending it to, for instance, your fainthearted and devoutly Catholic grandmother.

©2011 Michelle / The Ranting Dragon. To read the full review on the The Ranting Dragon website please click on this link.

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.

SF Site: The Nameless Day

the-nameless-day-us-1stedWith The Nameless Day, Sara Douglass has ventured well beyond the mummery of Tolkien found in her Axis and The Wayfarer’s Redemption books, while still retaining the basic garb of high fantasy. And, considering the usual expectations of readers evident in sales figures for this genre, some might suggest the author is treading risky ground.

At its most basic, this is an alternate history, set within the conflicts of the Hundred Years’ War amidst the divisions within the Church between the political papacies of Rome and Avignon. Broad, at times detailed scholarship of the period is evident, and few of the historical figures for the mid-14th century have not assumed a role as characters, up to and including Chaucer. Using the epic scope of the conflict, one that gripped most of Europe within a morass of political and military upheaval and intrigue the equal of any to be found in fiction, Douglass has interposed into that struggle a largely unseen battle waged between angels and demons for control over mankind’s future, of which the earthly conflicts are but a mortal reflection.

Rather boldly, the author has chosen to use heavily and emotionally freighted topics and symbols perceived primarily through the eyes of a man more villain than hero, and has done so in a manner that continues to mask her ultimate motives. This is somewhat a gutsy move on the part of the author, as previously mentioned, the novel reading more as if a traditional historical fantasy than metaphor, with “heroes” such as Thomas and the religious overtones borrowed from Christianity unlikely to attract the casual fantasy reader, let alone the majority of those who comfortably embraced the largely romantic and heroic escapism found in Axis or The Wayfarer’s Redemption. Yet for those willing to bank that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that many of the characters’ actions may well serve allegorical ends appearing poised by book’s end to become turned upon themselves, there looks to be rewards awaiting further development in successive volumes for what is admittedly a slow, not always clearly evolving story. However, the author’s reluctance to rush her story need not necessarily be seen as just another example of conformance to the demands of door-stopper fantasy.

But this appears a far more serious and ambitious work than her previous novels, and one where the author seems overall in control of her craft. Further, it looks as if Douglass is intentionally allowing her plots and themes to simmer, intending to bring her narrative slowly to a boil. For that reason, those seeking mere action to drive along the story will likely want to look elsewhere, as will those desiring a repeat of Axis and The Wayfarer’s Redemption. However, if the understated hints provided in this work are any indication of the author’s future intent for her use of allegory and symbolism, all of which appear but masks to deeper themes and issues, mimicking their borrowed traditions but subtly being altered to serve a very different purpose, then her strategy for gradually letting her story reveal itself may in the end prove well suited. This waits to be seen: on its own, this novel is not entirely successful. But as an introduction to a larger vision, one that is attempting to incorporate themes at the core of human existence, both within the context of past and present, this may yet signal in the books to come the announcement of a singular work in progress, deserving of further and greater notice.

©2002 William Thompson / To read the full review on the SF website please click on this link.

The Crucible Trilogy

Picture of fourteenth-century nobles from Paul Lacroix, Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages (London, 1874).

Picture of fourteenth-century nobles from Paul Lacroix, Manners, Customs and Dress During the Middle Ages (London, 1874).

“… a gutsy epic combining the medieval odure of Ken Russell’s The Devils with some of the philosophical interests of Morris West and Umberto Eco, yet echoing Mary Stewart and Quentin Tarantino. The novel unfolds like a film on the page …” Van Ikin, The Sydney Morning Herald.

“… her hero is a wonderfully morally ambivalent character …” The Age

Unlike my previous novels, the three books of The Crucible take place in this world, although in a slightly distant (and slightly parallel) time. Fourteenth-century Europe was both a fascinating and a dreadful age: fascinating because of the renaissance in art, culture and scholarly activities; dreadful because of the crises that wracked the region’s peoples. For an outline of the entire trilogy, see below; also see an explanation of The Parallel World of The Crucible and if you want to make some sense of the chapter headings within The Crucible, see How to Calculate Medieval Time.

The fourteenth century was an age of unprecedented catastrophe for western Europe: widespread famine due to climate change, economic collapse, uncontrollable heresies, social upheaval, endemic war and, to compound the misery, the physical and psychological devastation of the Black Death. In all of recorded history there has never been before or since a period of such utter disaster: one half of Europe’s population died due to the effects of famine, war and the Black Death. As a result, Europeans emerged from the fourteenth century profoundly – and frighteningly – changed. Medieval Europe had been an intensely spiritual society: the salvation of the soul was paramount. Fifteenth century Europe abandoned spirituality for secularism, materialism and worldliness, its peoples embraced technology and science, and developed the most aggressively invasive mentality of world history. Why this profound shift from the internal quest for spiritual salvation to a craving for world domination? Was it just the end result of over a hundred years of catastrophe … or was there another reason?

The Crucible is a historical fantasy trilogy based on the grim events of the fourteenth century. It recreates the world as medieval people understood it, a world of evil incarnate, a world where demons and angels walked among mere mortals, a world where every event was as a result of either the hand of God, or of the Devil. In this world none of the multiple crises and miseries of the fourteenth century were ‘accidental’, or the results of natural forces, they were the by products of an extraordinary battle between the forces of good and evil, between the religious orders of the Church, aided by mysterious and often frightening angels of God, and the horrifying shapeshifting minions of the Devil: demons, imps and the even more infernal creatures that swarmed out of the dark forests of central Europe. The Devil had come to confront God, and he had picked Europe as his battleground.

The trilogy is based about the adventures of Thomas Neville, an English nobleman and Dominican friar. As nobleman and priest, Neville has the connections and influence to move within the most powerful circles of Europe. As a former soldier and scholar, he also has the qualifications and experience to circulate within the more shadowy and arcane cliques of medieval society. With his experience and talent, as well his religious zeal, it is not surprising that Neville has not only become one of the Church’s most effective spies, but will also become one of its leading soldiers in the ultimate battle against evil.

the-nameless-day-1steditionBook I: The Nameless Day

The Nameless Day is, according to the ancient pagan calendar of Europe, the one day of the year when the world of mankind and the enigmatic world of the spirits touch (the 23 December). On year in mod-century the worst happens: the forces of evil slide across the divide and invade Europe. As the Church becomes aware that something dreadful has occurred, it sends Neville on a secret mission through the shadowy forests and arcane religious orders of Europe to discover the extent and nature of the danger. But not even Neville, who, as a priest, is highly attuned to the machinations of evil, is prepared for the disaster that eventually sweeps across Europe: the horror of the Black Death. Neville, as his masters, finally becomes aware of the scope of the disaster, and the forces of the Church and God rally against the infiltration of the Devil’s minions. The battle has been joined.

the-wounded-hawk-1steditionBook II: The Wounded Hawk

The Wounded Hawk won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2001.

There is initial relief: the plague has passed and it seems that evil has been defeated. Europe recovers; like a wounded hawk it has faltered, but now soars into the sunlit sky. Prosperity returns, trade resumes, and people slowly recover from the effects of the plague. Then, just as the Church has relaxed its guard, renewed disaster. Endemic war spreads across Europe. Widespread heresies challenge the authority of the Church. Revolts and rebellions threaten to topple the established monarchies and overturn the social order of Europe. And the plague returns, worse than ever.

Neville eventually discovers the cause. The minions of the Devil had not been repelled at all … during the diversion of the initial epidemic of the Black Death, demons and imps had scattered throughout European society. They are master shapeshifters, and have assumed the faces of merchants, peasants, noblemen, scholars – and even priests. Now these shapeshifters are working their subtle, disruptive evil within every level of society. Neville’s task is to discover the identities of these shapeshifters so that the Church can move against them, but Neville does not know who he can trust, as he cannot know the nature of the being that lies behind every face he meets.

the-crippled-angel-1steditionBook III: The Crippled Angel

The Crippled Angel (along with Hades’ Daughter) was nominated for best fantasy novel in the 2002 Aurealis Awards.

The crises enveloping Europe deepen; worse, Neville realises that by their very nature, these crises are altering the mentality of the world. People are no longer content with their lot in life; they have grown ambitious and disruptive. The Church is losing its grip, not only are the heresies raging out of control, but more and more priests are speaking out against the Roman Church. Traditional rituals and rites, whether religious or secular, are under increasing threat … the order of the world is dissolving into chaos.

Neville is facing his own crisis: for the past few years, as he has moved about Europe and spoken to a myriad of different people (demons or not, Neville no longer knows), he has begun to question his own faith. In England, and acting undercover for the Church, Neville worms his way close to the two most disruptive influences within English society: the heretic priest John Wycliffe and the peasant rebel Wat Tyler. Neville suspects strongly that they are shapeshifting demons … yet he cannot help but agree with their criticisms of the traditional structures of society and of the Church itself.

Neville does not know it, but his soul has become the ultimate battleground. The choices he makes will dictate the final outcome of the battle between the forces of good, and those of evil.

Neville is being tempted.

The action takes place in Rome, central Germany, France, Russia and England. The Crucible is based on historical fact, and uses historical figures. I will take a small liberty with dates (compressing events into a 5-10 year period), but basically all I am doing with this trilogy is presenting historical reality with a slightly different explanation. All historians are good at that kind of thing … I remember once ‘proving’ to a class of second and third year university students that King Charles I of England was an alien – any historical fact can be twisted any which way to make a point, and none of those students could prove me wrong!

Whatever, the sudden shift in mentality in the fourteenth to fifteenth century is a well documented fact. Scholars about the world twist themselves into knots trying to discover the cause. Was it only the psychological devastation of the Black Death … or something else? Possible causes include the introduction of the clock, or the introduction of the zero which had not been in use before. The Church fought long and hard against the zero, believing it an instrument of the Devil (because it represented ‘nothing’), but it failed … and the European mind was forever changed. Upon such small ideas does the course of human history falter.

A note regarding the spelling of names and places: spellings of both towns, regions and people have varied enormously over the past five hundred years. In all cases I have taken one spelling and stayed with it … it might not necessarily agree with late twentieth-century atlases and history books.

©1999-2004 Sara Douglass Enterprises