"If all that is good considers you evil…are you?"
This is the tag line of Jacqueline Carey’s newest novel, Banewreaker. Carey brought praise upon herself in the fantasy genre with the Kushiel Trilogy, (Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, Kushiel’s Avatar). Where the Kushiel novels worked more as an alternate history flavored with touches of the fantastic, in the first installment of her Sundering duology, Ms. Carey boldly and elegantly crafts a High Fantasy Epic. Readers who enjoyed the wonderful, elegant prose of Kushiel’s Dart will be pleased by Banewreaker. With an opening prologue setting the stage for the state of affairs of the Shapers (the powerful Gods of her world), this novel is ostensibly High Fantasy.
Very much in the vein of Tolkien, Banewreaker tells the story of the powers of the dark struggling against the powers of light. A bright force loved by many, with a dark enemy many look upon as the epitome of evil. Prophecy, elves, an ancient powerful wizard, a youthful bearer of a powerful object, and an dark army of ogres may sound familiar, but that is the beauty of what Ms. Carey is laying out in this novel-familiarity laced with something new. Indeed, this is the essence of much of the best High/Epic Fantasy today, readers know the generalities of the territory in which they tread, it is the magical spin with which the author presents the story. Genre conventions mixed with a new twist, or those conventions told under a different light. On the surface, Banewreaker seems, and only on the thin surface, another Tolkien-inspired saga of Good versus Evil. Carey takes mind’s eye of the reader and aims the point of view from the side of "Evil," that of Satarois Banewreaker, the titular Shaper God who was cast from his brethren Gods and scarred for life, and in his scarring, Sundered the world. As Haomane, Satoris’ elder brother and enemy, Sunders him, Satoris pours his energy into creating Gorgantum, also known as Darkhaven.
Empathy is evoked through Carey’s characterization of the "Evil" God, so much so that the notion of Satoris as an evil being is an almost hollow idea. Indeed, Satoris comes across as a being of quite more honor than the "Good" God, his brother Haomane who punished Satoris for what amounted to a difference in ideology. From his point of view, Satoris comes across as a creature wounded, both physically and in spirit. A creature who acknowledges the cause of his Sundering, but also wishes to be left alone to live his life in relative Peace. It would be easy enough, and lazy enough, for a lesser writer to simply tell us the Shaper Satoris is miscast as the Evil overlord. Instead, she slowly reveals aspects of his character through the events of the novel and those who serve him, the Three. As Haomane charged three beings to seek and destroy Satoris, so has Satoris Shaped three mortals into immortal sentinels, to defend Darkhaven and Satoris from Haomane’s mounting forces set upon destroying the Dark Lord.
Chief among the Three in Darkhaven is Tanaros Blacksword, a man also known by the good people of the world as Kingslayer and Wifeslayer. Tanaros, once a the mortal leader of the army of Roscus Altorus, King of the House of Altorus, now the immortal chief lieutenant of the army of Satoris. Over a thousand years old, Tanaros pledged his servitude to Satoris after killing both his wife and king, after learning of the affair between the two. While Tanaros did commit an act considered dark, his motivations are ones we can sympathize with. Honor, virtue, loyalty, and strength mark his character. Tanaros’ "cousins" as the Three refer to each other, are Vorax the warrior and Ushahin the Dreamspinner. All of the Three have their own reasons for serving Satoris, reasons as revealed by Carey, which are ones she convinced me to empathize with.
As one of the Three, Tanaros reports directly to Satoris, literally from the God’s mouth to the ears of Tanaros. Tanaros is one of the primary viewpoint characters in this novel, it is through his eyes we see much of the conflict and chaos caused by the impending war between Satoris and the faction of humans other Shapers led by Haomane. For the label of evil the world, through Haomane, has thrust on Satoris, the same fearful and venomous aura is cast about Tanaros. Some of the most interesting interactions are between Tanaros and Cerelinde, the captured Ellylon (Carey’s Elves) who was prophesized to marry Aarocus Altorus, the King of Men and last heir of the line of Kings Tanaros once served.
Another strong aspect of this novel is Carey’s depiction of Dragons. Here again is another convention of the genre Carey shapes into something her own. Her dragons are powerful, ancient creatures, older than Satoris and Haomane. Much like Tanaros is beholden to Sartoris, the primary dragon in this novel, Calandor, is bonded with a once-human woman, Lillas.
While Carey spends the majority of the novel focusing on the "Evil" protagonists, she also casts enough of a light on the "heroes" gathered by Malthus the Counselor, the powerful wizard leading the Fellowship surrounding the young man of Haomane’s prophecy. As the story unfolds, Carey shapes into being a Frodo-like character, charged with carrying around his neck, the Water of Life, in hopes of dousing the flames of Darkhaven.
Stepping back momentarily and removing the fantasy label, and examining this novel purely as a work of fiction, Carey’s talents, on a literary level are quite evident. The prose and writing is elegant, and an experience I did not want to cease. Her ability at creating real characters is excellent. This novel, with the dark cloud of war driven by motivations muddied with changing points of view, resonates with today’s world. As a fantasy novel, examining our world through the fiction Carey creates is quite believable. Fantasy as a tool, to more or less bring the internal struggles to the external world, works quite well in Jacqueline Carey’s adept hands.
Comparing this novel to its contemporaries, one gets the sense Ms. Carey is quite mindful of her genre/literary predecessors. Again, the Tolkien-ish elements are there, but the elements are moved around so skillfully, so entertainingly, that Ms. Carey manages to both tell an original tale, and make a fun game of matching up the characters and story elements to those genre trappings with which we are accustomed to reading. I can’t but help to compare Tanoros Blacksword to Gerrald Tarrant, the dark protagonist from C.S. Friedman’s brilliant Coldfire Trilogy. Both characters are surrounded by darkness, but within the darkness, driven by the spark of a core belief, in that what they are doing is best for all the players involved, and the world as well. Carey breathes her life into Tanaros, such that he is a unique and engaging character.
If there is any criticism I can raise against this otherwise excellent novel, it is small. At times, there is a repetitive sense in the narrative, for example we are constantly reminded Tanaros is one of the Three in the many instances his character takes center stage. This is a minor, minor quibble I bring up only to provide a balanced view of the novel.
Ultimately, a fantasy novel, with its mythical creatures and magical elements must succeed on the characters the writer brings to life. Consequently, these interesting characters and interesting story only account for a portion of a good book. To bring everything together, the writing and prose need to be readable, and in this, again, Ms. Carey has more than succeeded on all of these fronts. Jacqueline Carey has crafted a thoroughly engaging story, told through empathetic, believable characters. Carey plays a beautifully deft balancing act, between revealing and telling, between the expected and the unexpected and between characters and plot. If her earlier work brought acclaim, the first half of The Sundering could raise her notoriety even more. This was one of the best novels I have read this year and upon closing the book, it is with great anticipation I wait for the final book of the duology, Godslayer to publish in the summer of 2005. Readers looking for an example of exactly how great High Fantasy can be in the hands of a skilled writer need look no further than Banewreaker.
Author Web site