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Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey

Cover art by Donato

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This is one of those books that is really hard to review, for the simple reason that it is so full of promise that simply wasn't realized in the execution. It's particularly frustrating because this is not a work by a first-time author -- Jacqueline Carey has already proved amply in her Kushiel series that she can write powerful, engaging fiction that sucks you right into the world and makes you feel like you're living the protagonists' lives right alongside them. But this volume reads more like a sketch of what should have been at least two volumes of the size of the Kushiel books. We get glimpses of grand vistas, but we don't ever really get to walk them the way we did with Phedre or Imriel.

It's always a bad sign when an epic fantasy starts off with a history lesson going back to the creation of the world. Maybe she was trying for an effect similar to the Silmarillion, that grand and sweeping sense of a fantastical world coming into being and the titanic clash of godlike beings, but instead I found that it only served to distance me from the story, and I'm by profession a historian. Contrast that with the way she worked the story of the Blessed Elua and his Companions into the beginning Kushiel's Dart, as a lesson that Phedre and the other children of the House hear from a gentle and beloved priest, and which subsequently inspires Phedre to stick herself with a pin in hopes of seeing the angelic ichor mixed within her blood, and thus to discover that she as an anguisette, gifted with the power to feel pain as pleasure and through it to bring healing and hope.

A lot of critics have been complaining with various levels of umbrage that this series makes the devil into the hero, and thus is somehow morally offensive, if not outright Satanic. However, the only true reference to Satan in this novel is the use of a quote from John Milton's Paradise Lost as an epigraph at the very beginning. Flawed as the beginning is, it makes it pretty clear that Satoris is not Satan, in spite of the similarities of name. Far from being overweeningly prideful and desiring domination over all life, Satoris is a generous demiurge who doesn't even claim any of the lesser races as his own, but offers to give his own particular gift to all of them, and ardently seeks the deep wisdom of the dragons whom all others fear and reject. A very suitable attitude for one who is called the Sower, and whose Gift is the seeding of life.

Instead, the breach that leads to him being condemned as a Dark Lord is in fact more on the order of Creative Differences with his elder brother, Haomane Lord-of-Thought, who is actually the closest to overweeningly prideful. Specifically, Haomane had a very rigid idea of how the hierarchy of life should be arranged, and he felt that Satoris had been overly generous in endowing Men with his gift, to the point that they were striving beyond their rank and station in life, even striving against Haomane's own children, the Ellylon (elves). Finally, Haomane requested that Satoris withdraw his gift from Men in order to put them back into their place, a request Satoris refused, even when it was asked three times. So they ended up in an ugly fight that resulted in the Suoma, the Source of their power, broken and Satoris crippled, confined to the wide realm of mortals and the other six of his kindred tearing a fragment of the land away to become their island redoubt of Torath from which Haomane strives to destroy Satoris.

In other words, Satoris is more of a Prometheus figure than a Satanic dark lord in the tradition of Morgoth or Sauron. He upset the established order by giving too much power to an order of life who were supposed to be subordinate, and as a result is condemned by the chiefmost of the gods. Except instead of being chained to a mountain for a vulture to attack every day, Satoris is exiled to a fastness where he's able to establish a circle of followers, including his three Immortals who each bear a deep bitterness as a result of being the victim of what they perceive as a terrible injustice. Since he is building and fielding armies to range against the ones Haomane's raising through his agent Malthus (the one real blunder in naming by an author who usually has such a poetic ear for them -- I couldn't see that name without thinking of the historic Thomas Malthus, who wrote the first treatise on the limits of population growth), he's somewhat less sympathetic a figure than chained and agonized Prometheus.

That's all backstory to the real story, which is of course the first half of what's billed as the final battle between Satoris and the forces loyal to Haomane. The Lord-of-Thought has issued a new prophecy, claiming that if Satoris can be slain, the sundering of Torath from the rest of the world can be healed -- something that the Ellylon desperately want, since unlike the rest of the intelligent races, they are immortal and are particularly closely tied to Haomane. Since Satoris wants principally to be left alone to salvage what is left of his creative abilities, he orders one of the key elements of the prophecy to be removed from the board -- the Ellyl heir Cerelinde, whom the prophecy names as being destined to wed a Mannish king (shades of Arwen wedding Aragorn?). Except Satoris isn't really a bad guy, so he's not going to actually murder her in cold blood, just hold her prisoner in his fortress, and he's even rather gallant in his conversations with her when they meet.

Except one of his Immortals doesn't see things so sweetly. The bitter Ushahin, called Misbegotten because he came into the world as the result of a Mannish prince's rape of an Ellyl princess many millennia earlier, decides to kill her secretly by poison. He uses his madlings, the horde of deformed or otherwise rejected folk he's gathered unto himself, as instruments in this scheme, but one of them proves to be more compassionate than expected, thus arousing Satoris' wrath that one of his most trusted lieutenants should be trying to further blacken his name.

And that's just the intrigue that's going on inside Satoris' own stronghold. There's also war afoot on numerous fronts, from the attack on an ancient woman who's bonded to one of the few surviving dragons to Malthus' recruitment of the folk who live in the heart of the Unknown Desert in a scheme to quench Satoris' source of power, the marrowfire, with the water from the Well of the World. Dani, the character who's chosen by birth to be able to carry this precious Water of Life, is even called the Bearer, yet again an echo of Lord of the Rings.

But none of this intricate web of interlocking relationships and conflicts really springs to life. Here and there we get scenes in which we start to be sucked into the world, but they never last long enough before we're snapped back out of it by another passage of executive summary making sure that we know some Important Information. And it's a real shame, because Jacqueline Carey can write so much better -- it's almost like she shut down as soon as she switched from the first-person narrative of her Kushiel novels to the omniscient narrator of epic fantasy.

Review posted January 1, 2010.

Buy Banewreaker: Volume I of The Sundering from Amazon.com