Back for round 2 of my review of this classic ’90s fantasy series. In my review of The Wayfarer Redemption I was cheeky but also tried to be serious. I didn’t want to be too hard on Sara Douglass, because after all, the clichés in these books weren’t quite clichés when she was writing. At the same time, it’s hard to call these books great. They‘re good, for a certain entertainment value of good.
In this sequel, Axis has embraced his heritage as an Icarii Enchanter and plans to reunite Tencendor under his leadership. To do this, he must deal with his half-brother, Borneheld, while also defending the territory and people under his protection from Gorgrael. Oh, and he’s still learning magic. And he’s in love with two women! Fun times.
If anything, Enchanter made me think more about Douglass’ goals with this series and how she constructs it. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of Sunday morning reading this while listening to the classical radio station, but Enchanter really strikes me as embodying the most operatic qualities of high fantasy. This is a tragedy in its purest literary form. The stakes are high; the sets are big; the characters are larger than life. That allows me as the reader to give Douglass more leeway with this whole prophecy thing. Yes, Axis is unlikable and a dick, but he’s still a sympathetic character because he’s the protagonist of this tragedy: he might save his peoples from the Big Bad, but he himself isn’t going to get a personally happy ending in the process. The same can be said for Faraday and Azhure and perhaps a handful of supporting characters—the closer you are to the centre of this story, to the prophecy, the less likely you are to come out of it with anything resembling happiness.
Similarly, there are no “real” people in this story. We speak to precious few people who are not within the inner circles of the plot. We speak to very few people who might be considered your average everyperson—it’s like all the extras in this story are far in the background. Because the opera doesn’t care about those people; it only wants to give page time to the people whose actions are sustaining the plot (prophecy). This constraint can make for a very one-sided, very contrived story.
Why do these stories appeal to us if they are so over the top? Of course no one like Axis or Faraday exists in real life. Few people are the same combination of powerful yet petty as Borneheld (although, you know, I can think of a few leaders and billionaires who come close). Nevertheless, writers turn time and again to these stock characters and their stories because they do appeal to us. I think when you remove human agency from parts of the equation, it’s like controlling for a variable: the writer themselves then has a little more freedom to dig into another part of the human condition. By wrapping Axis & co. so tightly in prophecy as to practically smother them, Douglass can explore the edge cases of fighting for survival against incredible odds.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that if this story were being told by people in fancy costumes singing on a stage, I’d be more sympathetic to it. It’s made for that grand scale. With novels I usually yearn for something that has a little more humanity to the characters, but it’s hard to fault Enchanter for being consistent with the form it’s emulating. I’d be a lot harsher if I thought Douglass were actually trying to make her characters more real, but that’s not what I see here.
I’m starting to see now why this particular series from this time period might hold up in the sense of being a good example of the craft. I’m still not sure that it holds up as a series that I, personally, am enjoying reading.