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Starman
Sara Douglass
Tor, 559 pages

Starman
Sara Douglass
Sara Douglass is the pseudonym of Sara Warneke. Sara worked as a nurse for several years and completed three degrees, culminating in a PhD in early modern European history. She now teaches both medieval and early-modern history at La Trobe University in Bendigo, Australia. Her fantasy adventures, The Axis Trilogy and The Wayfarer Redemption, are the best-selling fantasy series ever in Australia, and Book 3 of the first trilogy, StarMan, won the 1996 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

The Worlds of Sara Douglass
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Starman
SF Site Review: The Nameless Day
SF Site Review: The Wayfarer Redemption
HarperCollins Voyager: Sara Douglass

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

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Sara Douglass is a best-selling fantasy author in her native Australia, where her books disappear off the shelves, apparently, and her last series sold in excess of a quarter million copies.

Having just laid down Starman, the third book in Douglass's flagship Wayfarer Redemption trilogy, I am at a complete loss to understand why. There is no depth to this work, nothing to identify with -- and the only reason this is a "fantasy" appears to be a funky map of a strange place on the endpapers, and the way that everyone has cutesy names and MultiCapitalisedTitles. And EVERYONE has titles. StarMan. Enchantress. The Sentinels. There would appear to be no room for the ordinary folk in this world.

There is no context to make suspension of disbelief, however willingly offered, at least possible. When you come to a piece of dialogue like this:

"...Faraday moves east, Axis prepares to move north, and Azhure... well who knows what she will do?"
it's a red-flag signal. This is a Robert Jordan Fantasy World, Quests Unlimited, and sense and context be damned. As long as the characters are on their way somewhere, or having a wild whack-'em-all-to-death kind of battle, everything's fine.

The characters are so thin that if they stood sideways you would not be able to see them; and even in this context they are sometimes incredibly mis-presented. For example, Gorgrael, described by Douglass as "the arch-fiend of the Prophecy of the Destroyer" is a creature clawed, winged, tusked, everything about it screaming that it is the Evil Overlord. I found more menace in David Bowie's portrayal of the Goblin King in Labyrinth than resides in Gorgrael's first wing joint -- did nobody ever explain to Douglass that evil hidden under beauty and therefore unsuspected is many times as powerful as an incarnation so hideous and obvious that it ends up no more than a cartoon character? She compounds her errors with Gorgrael by mentioning that this entity -- all-powerful, evil, strong enough to send nightmares across the world and commanding armies of fell creatures as well as the weather itself -- was "keen to make a good first impression", and "determined that [Timozel] should find his new master worthy of his service." Er, what? Since when does a Saruman, a Sauron, any kind of world-ruling, megalomaniac, egotistical and shiningly evil overlord care what a minion thinks of him -- so long as he does what he is told?

Everyone is handed some sort of wonder-power to be getting on with (no room for the ordinary, remember!) but it is a bit much, even so, when Timozel notices an "icebear" watching his passage from the tip of a convenient iceberg. Not only does Timozel immediately know that the bear is a she, but he also instantly knows that a missing ear on this she-bear, which "gave her head a curiously lopsided charm", was in fact lost "in a past dispute over another icebear over the carcass of a seal". Telepathy is a wonderful thing... and one does wonder how charming Timozel would have thought the bear if she (sic) hadn't been safely beyond a paw's reach of him.

There are some passages here of just plain bad writing, and obviously intended just for padding purposes (fantasy trilogies, after all, must be fat and heavy volumes, and words needs must be found wherever they can be found...)

An example -- and we are back to the hapless Timozel, who has just been conducted to Gorgrael's lair by a suitably menacing hooded creature known only as Friend.

"The ice fortress!" [the Friend exclaims portentously] <descriptiondescriptiondsecription> "The ice fortress," Friend said again, pointing. [Just in case Timozel missed it the first time] <descriptiondescriptiondescription, focus on menacing outlook>

Descriptive passage concludes with, "It was also very beautiful."

<More description, focusing on pretty colours>

"Beautiful," [Timozel] whispered. "Beautiful." [ Just in case the READER missed it the first time the author pointed this out.]

Another example:
So Gilbert sat, desolately prodding the bread that seemed determined not to rise, until he gradually became aware that he was being watched." [COMMENT: camp bread hardly ever 'rises' -- as anyone who has ever battled with yeast, under the most controlled of kitchen circumstances, will know...]

For some time he continued to sit, absolutely still, [COMMENT: watched pot comes to mind. He sits, he sits... he sits some more...] his eyes on the now blackening bread, [COMMMENT: the poor bread, its rising no longer required, still has value as distraction -- and adding word count...] his ears straining. After long minutes of silence, he could stand it no longer. [COMMENT: 'And about time', the reader mutters...]

"Who's there?" he called injecting as much bravado in his voice as he could. [COMMENT: if word count padding was required, this would be the place to put it, showing Gilbert's fear and his bravado through his actions rather than having him sit there for ten minutes and finally coming up with nothing more threatening than 'who's there'.]

And then there are the clumsy attempts to be colloquial without using the tried-and-trusted clichés -- as in when one character has a moment of insight, another exclaims, "You have hit the matter on the head!" (when someone tells you that you've hit the nail on the head, it makes sense because the mental image is that of a hammer striking true; Douglass's version is narrative-stopping, jarring nonsense at the best of times, and, at worst, provides the reader with an unintended and comic image of 'matter' being beaten about the head with a two-by-four...)

When a character as gifted with women, power and prophecy as Axis the StarMan comes up in council with "Truth to tell, my friends, I am unsure of what to do" -- and then goes on to extrapolate that into the fatuous statement that Gorgrael will strike and that "the best that we can do is prepare as best we can..." -- well, I'd be looking for another warleader, myself.

We won't go into Douglass's habit of naming her chapters ("The Song for Drying Clothes", anyone?) but one of the scariest things about this book is a paragraph buried right at the end of it:

"Azhure's father had never reappeared. No one knew where he had gone -- even Azhure professed no knowledge -- and Axis did not care if WolfStar never appeared again. Perhaps he had stepped back through the Stargate, returned to whatever eternity he should have enjoyed in the first instance. Perhaps. And perhaps he plotted mischief elsewhere."
I smell -- Heaven help us all -- a sequel coming. It's being cooked up somewhere in that eternity where, WolfStar is plotting mischief.

This is the secret that Robert Jordan and, now, Sara Douglass have learned. Hook a fan once, and they will return for any amount of rehash. Draw a pretty map, make up some weird names, chase them all out of a picturesque castle on wild goose chase quests, throw in a Dark Lord or a Wicked Witch of the North, and you've got it made -- book after book after book after trilogy after trilogy.

I dropped Robert Jordan after it became obvious that the Wheel of Time would continue spinning for as long as I was willing to pay for my seat on it. Well, I learned my lesson. I fully intend to leave Sara Douglass's characters to seek their redemption as best they can, in their own way, and their own time. Sorry, but there are hundreds of other, better drawn, more vivid worlds -- whose denizens I can actually bring myself to care about -- that I can offer my dream-energy to.

Copyright © 2002 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves". When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her latest fantasy work, a two-volume series entitled Changer of Days, was published by HarperCollins.


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