Ever since the first Wayfarer Redemption trilogy, when Axis lied to, betrayed and abandoned Faraday, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the work of Sara Douglass. As in life, Ms. Douglass’ characters are rarely either wholly good or evil. From Axis, Starman and former StarGod, hero of the first three books* who did his own share of nasty things; to Gorgrael, Axis’ twisted half-brother and the original villain of the story, who while evil was clearly shaped by the desperate loneliness of being outcast and disfigured.
*The story is published differently in Ms. Douglass’ home of Australia than it is here in the US. As I am unfamiliar with the Aussie version of things, I refer only to the US versions. The original ‘trilogy’ of The Wayfarer’s Redemption, Enchanter, and Starman; followed by the subsequent ‘trilogy’ of Sinner, Pilgrim, and Crusader. All six books have been dubbed “The Wayfarer’s Redemption” series here in the US.
This 7th book concerns some of the same characters we met and loved in the original books; but it has been published instead as book one of a series called Darkglass Mountain. Tencendor is dead and gone, having sunk beneath the waves at the end of Crusader. The only character we’re aware of that remains is StarDrifter, Axis’ Icarii father. However, Isiah, Tyrant of Isembaard and corporeal embodiment of the God of Water resurrects Axis himself for reasons of his own.
The novel begins with the compelling story of Ishbel, who suffered horror at the age of 8 when her entire family died of the plague. Rescued by the Arch priest of the Order of the Coil and raised to take up the mantle of their Arch priestess, Ishbel at 28 is told by the image of the Serpent God, whom she worships devotedly, that she must leave all she knows to marry a man she has never met.
His name is Maximilian Persimius, King of Escator, and he keeps a frightening family secret. For Maxel, as he is called by his friends, is the heir to a legacy that could bring about the end of the world. He is the Lord of Elcho Falling– The bitter hereditary enemy to Kanubai, God of Chaos, who had been locked away deep underground by Maxel’s ancestor and the Gods of Light and Water.
Sadly, some group of idiots two thousand years prior built a glass pyramid– Darkglass Mountain– on top of his prison, and then tried to reach the Infinite. Thus the prison was cracked, and Kanubai has spent the last millennium crawling from the depths of his cell. The magic involved in ‘reaching the Infinite’ and the cracking of the stopper that held Kanubai captive is not clearly explained. I suspect that this is explored further in the stand-alone novel Threshold, but I have not read it so I can’t say for certain.
The story begins with deep plots, and manages to weave the reader in among them without unraveling much of its mysteries. Isiah, God of Water, and Lister, God of Light, plot together to invade the Central Kingdoms from both the north and the south. Manipulating lives and events from behind the scenes, they arrange for Ishbel’s marriage to Maxel; Axis’ return from the Otherworld; and for chaos in the Central Kingdoms so that invasion will be that much easier.
Prepare for puzzlement at the dual natures of Gods who are presented to us as the ‘good guys’ and yet manipulate lives from a distance, causing untold pain, horror, and death in their wake. Skraelings amass in the North, barely controlled by Lister; and Isiah gathers in the South a massive million-man army. Caught in the middle are the lives and loves of thousands of others, not the least of which are Ishbel and Maxel. People are eaten by Skraelings, hearts are shattered by betrayal, innocent lives are lost, and the Gods barely even blink. They certainly don’t seem to lose any sleep.
It’s infuriating to be told that the eyes of Isiah are filled with profound compassion, and then have him plotting to invade and wage war on the Central Kingdoms in the next breath. I seethed at the inadequate natures of two so-called Gods who depend on a mere mortal to gather enough power to rise as the Lord of Elcho Falling… The only person who can face Kanubai and hope to defeat him.
The characters seem highly inadequate for their tasks. They make more mistakes than anything else along the way. Axis’ return makes little sense when it happens, and only a little more than that by the end of the book. I spent much of my time wondering if perhaps Ms. Douglass wouldn’t have been better off setting this story on a different world entirely. What were the purposes of Axis and StarDrifter? Wouldn’t an enemy different from the Skraelings work just as well in this setting?
At the end, I am simply unsure whether I love this book or hate it with all my heart. I do know that I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one. The sheer quantity of mistakes the characters make is in direct proportion to their human reality. If they spoke more to each other, forgave more, listened more… They would have no trouble defeating the enemy and winning the day. However, how often do these things happen in the real world? Mostly not at all. Two people who love each other deeply but have hurt each other beyond measure, much as Ishbel and Maxel, have little chance of having a happily ever after in our reality.
That is the element that Sara Douglass brings to her world. She pours in more than the ounce of genuine humanity that we see in other fantasy novels. You can be confident with most books that all will be pretty much as it should in the end. The good guys win; the bad guys are defeated. That’s the way things are supposed to go, right? Not so with these. Douglass weaves as much tragedy into her work as she does happiness. There is no guarantee of a neatly tied up ending here. The work is dirty, messy, and just as like to leave you heart sore as any other thing in life.
This is why I love it. Her work is ugly, brutal, fascinating– real. It takes a profound skill to work that amount of horror and unfairness into a story. I’m a writer as well, in my spare time, and I know exactly what it is to love your character like a child. You want them to do well, to flourish and to never have anything harm them at all. It takes strength and courage to allow them to falter, to fail, and to die.
That is why I hate it. I hate to see people I love be defeated and in pain. The reader is drawn into the world, the heart is tied inextricably to their fates. It is a mortal blow to see someone you love betrayed, abandoned, and destroyed. I can only imagine how much more it hurts for the author. So hats are off to Ms. Douglass once more. The Serpent Bride is another must-read in the saga of lost Tencendor and it’s world.