Jacqueline Carey burst onto the fantasy scene with her alternate history/fantasy/erotic series of novels which began with Kushiel’s Dart and in recent years, she has turned her pen to modern/urban fantasy. The focus here will be on her deconstruction of Epic Fantasy, The Sundering duology comprised of Banewreaker and Godslayer. Many people are familiar with Lord of the Rings (one can safely assume) and to a lesser extent, people are likely familiar with Wicked (either the musical or the Gregory Maguire novel which inspired it) wherein The Wicked Witch of the West is cast as protagonist. Think the same thing here with The Sundering, wherein the villain is cast as the protagonist (and slightly renamed). Since this is really one novel cut in half (an entirely different discussion*), much like Lord of the Rings is one novel broken into three books, I will be discussing The Sundering primarily as one story.
The tag-line of the first novel, and the theme of the duology is best summed up as: “If all that is good considers you evil…are you?”
The Sundering Duology (Banewreaker & Godslayer) 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 a 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 that can make the story/novel rise above its peers. The Sundering definitely rises above its peers. On the surface, The Sundering seems, and only on the thin surface, another Tolkien-inspired saga of Good versus Evil, or rather Evil vs. Good.
Whereas Lord of the Rings was told from the hero’s point of view, Carey aims the point of view from the side of “Evil,” that of Sataris Banewreaker, the titular Shaper God who was cast from his brethren Gods and scarred for life. You see, Satoris attempted to gift the world of mortal races, but this went against the Shaper God Haomane’s wishes. Only the highest of gods, Haomane has the power to gift lesser races with enlightenment, at least according to Haomane. As Satoris’ sunders him, Satoris pours his energy into creating Gorgantum, also known as Darkhaven.
As the story unfolds, Carey shapes into being a Frodo-like character at the center of the hero’s fellowship gathered by Malthus the Counselor, charged with carrying around his neck, the Water of Life, in hopes of dousing the flames of Darkhaven. Much like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, Dani of the Yarru people is the Bearer of the Water of Life, which much like dropping the one ring in Mount Doom, must be brought to Darkhaven to extinguish the fire in which Godslayer, the dagger which is the only weapon able to kill Satoris, can be found.
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. Over a thousand years old, Tanaros pledged his servitude to Satoris after killing both his wife and king, once he learned of the affair between the two. While Tanaros did commit an act considered dark, his motivations are ones which evoke sympathy: Honor, virtue, loyalty, and strength mark his character, though his flaw of jealousy overrode those virtues.
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. However it is through Tanaros’s eyes we see much of the conflict and chaos on the dark side of the conflict, caused by the impending war between Satoris and the faction of humans on Haomane’s side of the war. 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.
In the second half of the broken up novel, the story picks up just as Saartoris’s forces have been defeated. Carey focuses a bit more on the “good” side and further develops the relationship between Tanaros and Cerelinde as the fellowship chosen by Malthus, the Gandalf analogue, journey to Darkhaven. Those on the side of light seem more fractured and have more squabbles than those who side with Tanaros. The sorceress Lilas, who acts as an analogue to Galadriel, has more in common with Cassandra as few listen to what she has to say. As it turns out Cerelinde’s betrothed is a descendant of the child of Tanaros’s wife and the king’s extra-marital affair.
Ultimately, a fantasy novel/story (or a novel/story of any kind), 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.
The Sundering is very much a tragedy, especially considering the protagonist is a “villain” and this is essentially told through the Lord of the Rings framework. That said, 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.
Banewreaker and Godslayer are both available in mass market paperback and kindle editions. Unfortunately, the SFBC’s omnibus is no longer in print. Now would seem as good time as any for Tor to reissue the two books as one volume.
* This link points to a discussion wherein an SF Signal irregular can be found under a different guise. Points for those who guess the identity!