THE NAMELESS DAY
by Sara Douglass
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Sara Douglass has created an interesting mix of fantasy, alternate history and historical fiction in The Nameless Day, the first book in her trilogy "The Crucible." Following the exploits of the English nobleman-turned-Dominican friar Thomas Neville, Douglass gives an accurate, to a certain extent, depiction of the mid-point of the Hundred Years War between England and France.
The novel opens with Thomas's arrival in Rome coincident with the Papacy's return to Rome following the Babylonian Captivity in Avignon, France. As the Church breaks into schism following the election of Urban VI, Thomas leaves Rome on a quest ordained by the Archangel Michael to root out the evil which has been festering in Christendom since the death of Wynkyn de Worde thirty years earlier. Thomas's journeys take him to Germany and France before he finds himself in England confronting the demons of his own past, as well as the demons Michael warned him about.
Douglass does a fantastic job presenting the mindset of the late fourteenth-century. Thomas, especially, demonstrates a cleric's view of women and the world which seems archaic in today's world, yet is perfectly appropriate. Furthermore, she gives him these views without causing the reader to lose sympathy with him. Furthermore, his views are balanced by a broad group of supporting characters, ranging from his prior, Bertrand, who sees Thomas as a threat to the order of the abbey, to Henry Bolingbroke, who laments the loss of his old drinking buddy to the Church. These alternate views of Thomas, provide a more fully realized character.
At the same time that Douglass gets the philosophy of the period correct, she telescopes the history of the fourteenth (and part of the fifteenth) century. Set in 1378, she has postponed the deaths of King Edward III, King John II, Edward the Black Prince, the Battle of Poitiers and the Jacquerie. Similarly, she has moved the birth of Joan of Arc earlier to allow Thomas to meet and work with her. While there appear to be compelling plot reasons for these changes, Douglass does not provide any historical explanation for postponing the events or why they would occur in the same manner, but at a different time. For a reader with knowledge of the historical timeline, these changes jar.
The Nameless Day is the first book of a trilogy which was clearly conceived as such. At the end of the novel, Thomas has failed to achieve his quest for Wynkyn de Worde's mysterious casket, the proclaimed "Demon King" has appeared, but has not yet revealed any of his powers, and the purposes of Margaret, the erstwhile mistress of Thomas's uncle Ralph Raby, have been hinted at. but not yet exposed.
For whatever faults it has, The Nameless Day is a riveting novel which draws the reader into a fully realized fourteenth century. Douglass not only demonstrates a knowledge of the era, but also shows her ability to write an epic tale which leaves the reader hungering for the second (and third) book in the series. Set in a time of social and political upheaval, Douglass focuses on the trials of an individual who must come to grips with not only a changing time, but also the changes in his own perception of institutions he has come to rely upon.