Sunday, 10 January 2010

BattleAxe - Sara Douglass

BattleAxe is book one of the Axis Trilogy (Douglass is also the author of the Wayfarer Trilogy that follows this).

A thousand years ago the people of Achar drove the Forbidden from their land in the War of the Axe. They pulled down huge swathes of woodland in their fear and now live by the Way of the Plough under the benign guidance of their deity Artor.

Troubling rumours are brewing from the north. Winter has come - and stayed. Icy wraiths are appearing from the mist and killing soldiers at the border stronghold before vanishing. They are believed to be the Forbidden, massing in order to invade Achar and kill the Acharites.

We meet Borneheld and Axis - Borneheld is heir to the throne of Achar, son of Searlas and Rivkah; Axis is his illegitimate half-brother, also son of Rivkah from when she took a lover and disgraced herself. Borneheld is the War Leader of Achar; Axis is the leader of the Axe-Wielders, the BattleAxe of the title.

Borneheld is sent the the border with reinforcements to try and hold back the Forbidden, while Axis is commanded by Jayme - the Seneschal of the Brotherhood (a sort of head priest figure, and Axis' foster father) - to seek out more information about the Forbidden in a bid to defeat them.

Axis is also commanded to take with him Faraday, Borneheld's betrothed, a very beautiful and innocent young woman whom Axis falls in love with. On the course of the journey Axis finds out more about the nature of the Forbidden and the Sentinels - and learns of the Prophecy. This Prophecy is about to change the course of his life forever.

Well, that is a basic description of the events that fill this novel, but don't do justice to the sheer amount of information that Douglass manages to fit in. She creates four completely different races, with a shared history; she sets up a family dispute that threatens to destroy the land and leave it open to Gorgrael, the foe; she puts in a Prophecy and many mystical doings.

With this in mind, the pace is explosive. I whipped through this six hundred page book in a matter of a couple of days, which (even given the fact I am currently trapped in my house by snow) is fast. The writing is simple and easy to follow; the concepts presented are smooth and Douglass builds up a decent fantasy world.

It is just a shame the writing is so damn bad, and the book is rife with cliches. Honestly, as I was reading through the novel I second guessed just about everything that happened, from Rivkah's 'surprise' resurrection, and Faraday turning out to be more than she seemed. Oh, and when Timozel is mentioned as resenting Axis within the first paragraph of introducing him, what's the betting he goes on and betrays Axis.... What's that? No bet, you say? When you know how a novel will pan out, it doesn't give you a great inclination to continue reading.

This book is in need of a heavy edit. For instance, within the first ten pages or so we encounter the word 'perplexion'. Unless I'm completely wrong, Douglass is making up words here - and a decent edit should have picked this up. A decent edit would have also turfed out some of the erroneous information Douglass info-dumped into the novel.

And, oh boy, is Douglass fond of her info-dumping! Every time she needs to introduce a new race, or the history of a race, or the religion of the country she over-uses the naive wide-eyed character that is having everything explained to them. This happens over and over and over and over....... again. It is a lazy method, and some of what Douglass brings into the story is just unnecessary for the story - it seems she is so proud of the notes she produced when world-building that she can't bear to leave anything out.

An edit would also have prevented some of the "oh, come on!" moments. For instance, at the end of chapter 51 we hear about the Charonites for the first time (on page 567 in my edition). In chapter 53 one of the characters suddenly says they need to seek the assistance of the Charonites. It makes me roll my eyes and jars me right out of a story when an author is as lazy as this. All it would have taken was a brief mention of this long-lost race during one of the many info-dumps we have to endure and it would have been much smoother!

I also have to mention Douglass' cutesy names for her Icarii characters, and also a method she uses throughout the book as a naming convention. We have characters such as StarDrifter and GoldFeather (yes, note the capital letter sat halfway through that word) and places such as the WildDog Plains (again, note the capital letter). Axis is the BattleAxe. I hate it! Every time I read one of these names I roll my eyes, which, although common in fantasy (Douglass is far from the only offender) it is the first time I've seen traditions of writing so cavalierly discarded.

Alongside this is the way that Douglass names the months: here, we have Raven-Month, Hungry-Month, Rose-Month etc etc. It makes the characters sound backward and childish when they say them.

And I'm not sure I am supposed to laugh at some of the sections I chortled at.... Everytime Axis and his Axe-Wielders leave a place, they go through the following ritual:

"Axe-Wielders, are you ready?" "We follow your voice and are ready, BattleAxe!" "Then let us ride!"

Douglass probably thought that this would sound stirring and majestic, but it just made me giggle a bit - especially when they perform the ritual on those occasions when they are supposed to be *silently* approaching an enemy in order to surprise them!

There are many more ways that I can be scathing - the characters are self-consciously made out to be good when they (surprise, surprise!) turn out to be evil later on; the military men immediately take on board the Prophecy as complete truth without any scepticism; a lot of the time Douglass forgets the saying 'show, don't tell' - but it's just too easy to mock.

What is sad is that Douglass obviously has a fantastic imagination, because the Way of the Plough, and the nature of the Forbidden are good ideas and could have been amazing in the hands of someone who could, y'know, actually write!

This is the first in a trilogy - on the one hand I don't want to read any more of the books because it is so much cliched nonsense; on the other hand I am compelled to find out what happens next! So I award it three stars - the two dimensional characters and bad writing on one side; compared with the fantastic pacing and imagination on display makes this a distinctly average fantasy novel.


  1. Think she's one of the fantasy authors that would be better suited to writing an textbook about their fantasy world rather than a novel?

  2. I think that Sara just loves her world so much - and wants everyone else to love it - that she ends up giving us every little bit of information about it she can. I don't think she's reached textbook levels yet though!