Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In and Out of Whack

It's not often that I abandon a book part way through. I am the sort of reader who develops a deep connection to characters and a need to know what comes next, and it takes a truly bad book-match to shake me off.

That's why I was surprised when The Wayfarer Redemption (by Australian author Sara Douglass) and I didn't work out. I'd been admiring the series for a long time before finally beginning the to read it; Sara Douglass really lucked out with some gorgeous cover art. The Wayfarer Redemption also came highly recommended by my father, an inveterate connoisseur of fantasy literature. To be fair, my dad did eventually note some of the series' flaws. He was able to finish the first trilogy, however, while I find myself fleeing without quite finishing the first book.

The Wayfarer Redemption is the first book of a trilogy, which is itself the first trilogy in a series of two trilogies. The series is plagued by some globetrotting weirdness. In Australia the first trilogy is called The Axis Trilogy and the first book is called BattleAxe, but in America the two trilogies are combined into a six-book series called The Wayfarer Redemption (actually the name of the second trilogy in the series), and BattleAxe loses its name.


The Wayfarer Redemption orbits a man named Axis, the BattleAxe (general) of an organization called the Axe-Wielders, the military arm of the Seneschal, the leadership organization of the Way of Axe and Plough, the dominant religion of a region called Achar (in one breath!). The Way of Axe and Plough follows the dictates of a god called Artor, who teaches that all forests are home to dark and unnatural creatures, called the Forbidden, and that the only good nature is subjugated nature. Forests must be cut into fields and the fields ploughed to produce grain, and the grain fed to humans, so they can produce more humans, who can cut down more forests, plough more fields, and plant more grain. Etcetera. Axis is the bastard son of Rivkah, the king's sister. As far as anyone knows, Rivkah died giving birth to Axis, which is part of why Axis's trueborn half brother Borneheld resents him. The other part of the reason is that Borneheld has a parallel post as the WarLord of the secular army.

Also coming into the story is Faraday, a beautiful young noblewoman, and a few other people, but those are details you don't need right now.

Anyway, this trio starts a tragic trajectory towards.... uh... doom. Axis and Faraday fall instantly in love, shortly after Faraday is betrothed to Borneheld. Axis discovers that he is a magic destiny baby and the Forbidden aren't so bad, Faraday discovers that she has to marry Borneheld to keep him off Axis's back. In some ways, it's a rather typical fantasy plot, but that doesn't bother me much.

What bothers me is the sense that the narrator's moral sense is totally out of sync with mine to the point that I don't feel I can trust her to do justice by the characters I've grown fond of. This story has a very involved narrator, clearly expressing an idea of who is right and who's wrong, who's justified and who's not. For example(s):

  • Borneheld is destined to die at Axis's hand, in a fight over Faraday, who only married him to keep him from venting his frustration on Axis, the younger half-brother whose birth killed their mother. Let me repeat this: Farady knows that she loves Axis and is only marrying Borneheld, and is lying to him about how satisfied she is with their marriage, in order to manipulate him. You know, if that was my life, I'd have frustration to vent, too.
  • Borneheld is considered culpable for his father's personality. Faraday is told by a magical being - basically a goddess - that Borneheld's line deserves to die with him, as far as I can tell, because his father was a jerk.
  • I have no problem with Rivkah cheating on her husband - it was an arranged and pretty dysfunctional relationship - but it bothers me that Rivkah's preoccupation with her second son at the expense of any real concern for her first son is treated as normal and laudable. It's certainly a realistic character choice for Rivkah to have more affection for the child born of love than the child born of circumstance, but this is not the trait of a good, loving individual. It's a flaw.
  • The big villain is the result of an ill-omened union between an Avar and an Icarii, the magical horned and winged people who the humans pushed out to make way for their own civilization. Despite the fact that they are aware of this possibility in prophecy, the Avar and the Icarii regularly hold Beltaine-style free love parties and expect the women to abort any children conceived this way. And it's the Acharites (humans) who are viewed as foolish and selfish.

Ultimately, The Wayfarer Redemption is an ecofantasy (something I really ought to write a post about some day), but not one that I can really appreciate. It's simply too morally flat. In Knights of the Land (see what I did there: the title changed) I focus on the difficulty of living in harmony with nature. The Knights are vilified for what they demand, and in the past they have alienated potential allies by demanding too much. In The Wayfarer Redemption, ordinary humans are the worst monsters of all, while the two races who do live in harmony can do no wrong.

That's not to say that there's nothing good about The Wayfarer Redemption. Axis's gradual realization that he's on the wrong side is well done, with the character's gradual slide out of one faith and into another portrayed realistically and interestingly. Farady has a similar arc. This particular storyline reminds me of some of the best parts of The Guild of the Cowry Catchers. Despite its moral flatness, the setting is interesting and detailed, with a great deal of history and possibility.

In the end, however, it's not a book I can finish. It's not personal, but I just don't trust Sara Douglass enough to continue to let her occupy any of my headspace. She's written a very involved narrator, one with clear ideas of right and wrong, and those ideas are so at odds with mine that I just can't continue. It's not that I don't like to see good people making bad choices and bad things happening to good people; that is the meat and bread of storytelling. It's just that I don't want to continue reading a story where the narrator's sense of right and wrong - of who's a victim, who's a hero, who's a villain, and who deserves what's coming to them - is so at odds with mine.

It makes me too angry, and it makes me too sad.

* * *

Today I just have the one question: am I a wimp or a crazy person, or has this ever happened to you?

No comments: