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The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey


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Book 1: Banewreaker


Long Ages ago, the Seven Shapers forged the world in accordance with the will of their creator, out of whose death they were born. However, Satoris the Sower refused the command of Haomane Firstborn and was named a traitor. For many long Ages Haomane and Satoris struggled, until the world was Sundered. The other six Shapers now dwell in the uttermost west, whilst Satoris finds himself constantly assailed by their servants in Urulat.


Tanaros, one of the Three and Satoris's most stalwart servant, is given an important mission. He must prevent Haomane's Prophecy from coming to pass by seizing the Lady of the Ellylon, Cerelinde, before she can marry the Aracus Altorus, the rightful King of the West. But this kidnapping itself may have set in motion the events that Satoris has long tried to avoid...


Read at a purely surface level, the plot precis of Banewreaker (the first book in the Sundering duology) sounds more than a bit familiar. But this is deliberate: in these two novels Jacqueline Carey launches a revisionist broadside at the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. At a very simple level, this is the story of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (though chronologically mixed-up) as told from Morgoth's point of view (and, more overtly, the Witch-King of Angmar's, though Sauron also plays a role).


Of course, Carey reworks the names, concepts, races and ideas a fair bit so she doesn't get sued into oblivion by the Tolkien Estate, but these changes are hardly impenetrable, and it's still straightforward enough to work out who is who from the Tolkien mythos. At the same time, Carey imbues her characters with enough depth that they stand on their own two feet and after a while you start to forget the artistic intent behind the series in favour of its own narrative and storyline.


The Sundering is essentially an 'epic tragedy', and it's telling that each book opens with a quote from Paradise Lost. The duology is set in a world where there are two distinct sides, the 'dark' forces led by a fallen deity and consisting of an army of trolls led by 'fallen' Men, and a 'light' side led by stalwart heroes, noble Ellylon (elves with the serial numbers filed off) and a plucky innocent hero who has to take a magical trinket of enormous power (in this case, slightly oddly, a bucket of water) into the heart of enemy territory. The 'good guys' are also advised by a wise and powerful wizard who at one point undergoes an unexpected transformation. The story, spun by the wizard and his cronies, is that Satoris wrecked the world through greed and avarice, and continues to be responsible for all that is evil in Urulat. However, Satoris claims that he only desired freedom of voice and expression and was brutally supressed by the supposedly wise Haomane, who has incessantly pursued Satoris out of vengeance ever since.


The reader is invited to make their own judgement on the truth of the matter, mostly through the character of Cerelinde who is initially a paid-up supporter of Team White Hat. Arriving at Satoris's fortress of Darkhaven, she finds it guarded by fell trolls and maintained by an army of ugly and twisted minions...but the trolls turn out to be honourable and brave warriors, and the minions are outcasts turned out from the world of Men and Ellylon who have been given shelter by Satoris and are treated kindly. As the book progresses, Cerelinde finds herself questioning her own rote acceptance of the written version of history, but at the same time Satoris and his own minions, attacked once again by their enemies, find it difficult to resist becoming what Haomane's PR makes them out to be, evil and destructive monsters.


It's a clever idea for a book, going beyond the mild revisionist intent of Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn (where he merely gave his dark lord a motivation, but didn't attempt to justify the evil he'd still carried out), but the book cannot survive on its intent alone. As an individual work with its own storyline and characters, Banewreaker is satisfying and well-written, with Carey managing the trick of echoing Tolkien's prose style without slavishly following it (and thankfully not even attempting any poems). Events build to a tragic conclusion as an epic battle is fought between two sides where both are in the right and in the wrong, and the stage is set for a bigger confrontation to come in the concluding volume of the story, Godslayer (although the actual ending of the book is a little random, the result of this being one long novel split in two and not two separately-written instalments).


Banewreaker (****) is an intelligent and refreshing take on the traditional epic fantasy novel and is a well-written and enjoyable story in its own right. It is available now in the USA and on import in the UK.

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Book 2: Godslayer


The land of Urulat is about to see the end of a conflict thousands of years old. The machinations of Satoris the Sower have been exposed and the would-be King of the West, Aracus Altorus, advised by the Wise Counsellor Malthus, has raised a mighty host to assault Darkhaven and rescued his beloved, Cerelinde of the Ellylon. It falls to Satoris' most loyal servants, the Three, to prepare his defence. But whilst great armies ready for the clash, it falls to two of the humble desert-people to find their way into Darkhaven and strike the blow that will render Satoris truly vulnerable.


Godslayer is the second and final novel in The Sundering, a duology that studies and subverts the traditional epic fantasy paradigm as established by Tolkien. Like its forebear, Banewreaker, Godslayer is an epic tragedy, closely based on events and characters from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but at every turn analysing deeply every character's motivation. As Satoris ponders, does it matter that you are not evil if everyone else believes that you are?


This premise allows Carey to examine many themes and ideas, such as propaganda (Malthus/Gandalf as a sort-of Goebbels for the 'good guys' is an interesting take), destiny and the cyclical nature of history: just as Morgoth was cast down but his servant Sauron was overlooked, allowing him to return later, so Satoris has his own lieutenants who stand poised to inherit his mantle. These ideas are rooted in strong characterisation, particularly of Tanaros and Cerelinde, though other characters also come to the fore.


Godslayer suffers from some minor issues. The story is inherently predictable, once you realise what Carey is doing. Also problematic is that The Sundering is one novel split in two for publication (itself appropriate, since The Lord of the Rings was originally published as three volumes; the fact that Carey tells as epic a story in considerably less pages may itself before a comment on the fantasy genre), meaning that the two books do not stand well alone. Since both are available now and you can read from one into the next without a problem, this is not as much of an issue as when the book was newly-released.


On the plus side, this is a clever and thoughtful conclusion to the series. Through authors such as Bakker and Erikson, epic fantasy has of late been more and more interrogating itself and asking hard questions about its underlying assumptions, but Carey does the same here a lot more concisely. Carey also delivers a story that is an emotionally powerful tragedy. The opposing factions cannot agree on anything and good men on both sides die needlessly as a result of mistakes made thousands of years earlier. The reader becomes as frustrated as the characters do at the ongoing carnage that is only happening at the whim of the proud and long-absent gods.


Godslayer (****) is a worthy conclusion to this duology that questions the conservative nature of much epic fantasy and finds it wanting, as well as delivering a powerful and tragic tale in its own right. The book is available now in the USA and on import in the UK.

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