The 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 wonderous!
©2000 Dr Karen Brooks, Department of Popular Culture and Media Studies, Arts Faculty,University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore