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The Nameless Day -- Book One: The Crucible
Sara Douglass
HarperCollins/Voyager, 584 pages

The Nameless Day
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: The Wayfarer Redemption
HarperCollins Voyager: Sara Douglass

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

With The Nameless Day, Sara Douglass has ventured well beyond the mummery of Tolkien found in her Axis and The Wayfarer's Redemption books, while still retaining the basic garb of high fantasy.  And, considering the usual expectations of readers evident in sales figures for this genre, some might suggest the author is treading risky ground.  Gone are the casual borrowings from Greek mythology, coupled with conventions familiar to any reader of high fantasy over the last several decades that so bothered certain critics and readers of her earlier work. (I, for one, was not entirely among them, as I felt other elements of her six-volume saga in part redeemed the story, at least in terms of simple tale-spinning not taken out of context or seeking expectations beyond the scope or obvious conventional aspirations of the work.  Judged on its intended merits, it was an often entertaining if not particularly weighty or singular read, and certainly not as banal or completely derivative as some other popular fantasies out there that somehow seem to have avoided all the criticism, even if more justly deserved.)  While one might argue that they have simply been replaced here with a Christian pantheon of angelic and demonic hosts, Douglass appears not to be simply swapping one mythos for another, but instead using her new cast of magical, mythical players as symbols toward a much more serious end.

At its most basic, this is an alternate history, set within the conflicts of the Hundred Years' War amidst the divisions within the Church between the political papacies of Rome and Avignon.  Broad, at times detailed scholarship of the period is evident, and few of the historical figures for the mid-14th century have not assumed a role as characters, up to and including Chaucer.  Using the epic scope of the conflict, one that gripped most of Europe within a morass of political and military upheaval and intrigue the equal of any to be found in fiction, Douglass has interposed into that struggle a largely unseen battle waged between angels and demons for control over mankind's future, of which the earthly conflicts are but a mortal reflection. 

On the surface, all of this might seem rather pat, but underlying the story there appears to be questions being posed as to the meaning and significance of man's previous striving for identity within the spiritualism of the Church, counterpoised against the increasing emergence of what was later to become humanism in the rise of the nation state out of the ashes of war-torn France.  While superficially an historic struggle reformed to fit the needs of fantasy, there are some rather large themes, equal if not greater than the scale of the narrative action, brooding in the background.

Unlike Axis or The Wayfarer's Redemption, in which much of the author's intentions were telescoped, Nameless Day is far less obvious in its aims and potentially off-putting in approach.  The central figure, Thomas Neville, is a Dominican priest whose characterization is hardly sympathetic.  A former English nobleman hiding from a shameful and hideous past (only partially revealed by book's end), as a priest he exemplifies the worst excesses of pious self-righteousness and hypocrisy.  Not unexpectedly, it proves somewhat difficult for the reader to attach themselves to Thomas' persona within the narrative, particularly as he also manifests an extreme hatred of women that finds expression as abuse, sentiments which are echoed elsewhere throughout the novel (passages such as the "vile equivalent of the suppurating cleft that lay between the legs of every daughter of Eve" leave little imagination as to the misogyny represented by some of the characters within this book, and while some might feel such a passage somewhat heavy-handed in expression, it but truthfully mirrors similar statements and views that can be found within the primary historical record).  Women by and large fare poorly in this tale, though again, as with the symbolic use of angels and demons, as well as the choice of narrative perspective, not all is as it appears. Despite the author's seemingly straightforward approach to narrative and action, as well as her apparent appropriation of a historical context from which to simply spin out the usual fantasy yarn masquerading in the guise of history, actual events and social realities lending the tale a greater semblance of verisimilitude, as the story progresses, more and more the reader catches the sense that the various struggles going on within the novel represent more than what appearances indicate, and even though couched within traditional notions associated with religion -- soul, redemption, and the struggle between good and evil -- these concepts, despite the Old Testament overtones, may yet disguise a far different symbolic and allegorical intention.

Rather boldly, the author has chosen to use heavily and emotionally freighted topics and symbols perceived primarily through the eyes of a man more villain than hero, and has done so in a manner that continues to mask her ultimate motives.  This is somewhat a gutsy move on the part of the author, as previously mentioned, the novel reading more as if a traditional historical fantasy than metaphor, with "heroes" such as Thomas and the religious overtones borrowed from Christianity unlikely to attract the casual fantasy reader, let alone the majority of those who comfortably embraced the largely romantic and heroic escapism found in Axis or The Wayfarer's Redemption.  Yet for those willing to bank that there is more going on here than meets the eye, and that many of the characters' actions may well serve allegorical ends appearing poised by book's end to become turned upon themselves, there looks to be rewards awaiting further development in successive volumes for what is admittedly a slow, not always clearly evolving story.  However, the author's reluctance to rush her story need not necessarily be seen as just another example of conformance to the demands of door-stopper fantasy.

True, Douglass does, on occasion, stumble in this opening to her newest trilogy.  Thomas' rationalizations of his actions and changes of heart do not always ring true, at times seeming unaccountable and lacking the prior foundation necessary to support the swings in his thoughts and behaviour.  And the author does seem to have some difficulty in developing internal conflicts and dialogue, more often than not resolving them either through repetition of thought or having the character somewhat suddenly alter their earlier opinions or behaviour without reason as to the cause being fully evident. 

But this appears a far more serious and ambitious work than her previous novels, and one where the author seems overall in control of her craft.  Further, it looks as if Douglass is intentionally allowing her plots and themes to simmer, intending to bring her narrative slowly to a boil.  For that reason, those seeking mere action to drive along the story will likely want to look elsewhere, as will those desiring a repeat of Axis and The Wayfarer's Redemption.  However, if the understated hints provided in this work are any indication of the author's future intent for her use of allegory and symbolism, all of which appear but masks to deeper themes and issues, mimicking their borrowed traditions but subtly being altered to serve a very different purpose, then her strategy for gradually letting her story reveal itself may in the end prove well suited. This waits to be seen: on its own, this novel is not entirely successful.  But as an introduction to a larger vision, one that is attempting to incorporate themes at the core of human existence, both within the context of past and present, this may yet signal in the books to come the announcement of a singular work in progress, deserving of further and greater notice.

Copyright © 2002 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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