Review of Pilgrim by Sara Douglass
by Sara Douglass
This is a marked improvement over the first book in this trilogy, but that isn’t saying much. Pilgrim is very much Drago’s redemption story, and Sara Douglass is determined that we care for him as a person and a hero. And you know what? I think she might actually succeed. Not because Drago is all that great, but because our choice of other heroes is … not great. Axis and Azhure (well, to be fair, mostly just Axis in this book) continue to be the literal worst. WolfStar is awful. Caelum is, for reasons I won’t spoiler, not really in the picture on this one. StarDrifter and Zenith kind of get relegated to supporting roles, and the human princes are basically non-entities.
Nope, folx, it is definitely the Drago and Faraday Show.
The Timekeeper Demons are loose in Tencendor. Their plan? Gotta collect ’em all. Except instead of Pokémon, they need to travel to each of the 4 magical lakes and retrieve a part of their evil uber-colleague, Queteb. Once they’ve reassembled and reanimated him, they’ll be unstoppable! Until then, they are limited to each having sway over a specific span of hours in the day—during which time anyone not in shade can be mind-controlled and turned into a raving lunatic/zombie thing.
I don’t think I’ve discussed how ridiculous the Timekeeper Demons are, so let’s pause and reflect on that. They are Metaphor Demons, in the sense that each represents a certain negative trait—despair, hunger, etc. Their personalities, however, leave much to be desired, and any time we spend with them makes me think of them as petty, squabbling children. This is the problem with personifying your nigh-unstoppable mystical forces: they feel small.
Meanwhile, everyone is engaged in a race against time. The Demons are racing to the lakes. WolfStar is trailing them because he wants to reanimate Niah the same way the Demons plan to reanimate Queteb. What happens with WolfStar and Niah both … well … let’s just say, Douglass’ fascination with strange sex/sexual violenc stuff reaches new levels in Pilgrim. And that’s in addition to Zenith quite literally complaining that she is too disgusted by the idea of sleeping with her grandfather, StarDrifter, and how much that sucks because she really wants to sleep with him. And everyone is all, “Ooooh, Zenith, don’t worry, you’ll get over and it then the two of you can boink like proper SunSoars” and I just … I can’t. I can’t. This book goes beyond kink into a very uncomfortable place.
I mentioned in my intro that Axis continues to Axis it up all over the place. Without spoiling things, suffice it to say that he is the oldest person I have ever seen to throw a temper tantrum. He would rather kill Drago on sight than admit that Drago might have a role to play in saving the entire world. Axis is the epitome of fragile, toxic masculinity—he always has been, right from Book 1, but whereas the original trilogy was about his growth into a hero, this trilogy seems determined to cast him as a crabby, closed-minded old man.
And then we have Faraday. I fucking loved Faraday in this book, because Faraday is tired of your bullshit. Faraday is not having it anymore. She has spent 4 books being put through the wringer, being killed and transformed and assaulted and married off and basically told what to do for every major decision in her life, and she is done. She majestically and quite rightfully rejects all notions of destiny in Pilgrim, and it is the best part of this book.
Finally, let’s talk about Drago. In the original trilogy he was a minor villain, an instigator of a plot to kill the baby Caelum so he could be the StarSon. His face turn is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this second trilogy, and Pilgrim works hard to explore that. Despite all my other criticisms of Douglass’ writing and storytelling, I will hand it to her: she does a good job here. Drago doesn’t suddenly embrace his new role, doesn’t immediately step up and say, “Yes, now I am the hero! Hahaha.” He struggles with it, much like Axis struggles with the idea, because Drago too has spent 40 years being told he is the worst person alive. So it makes sense that he needs to adjust to the new reality.
Oh, and there is a lot of magic happening. Those races against time? They involve discovering magical secrets, magical sanctuaries, etc. This might seem like a weird remark for a fantasy series, but … sometimes I feel like The Wayfarer Redemption has too much magic. Like, everything and everyone in this book is mysterious and magical, and it’s likely one reason that this book is over 700 pages long. More importantly, when everything is magical, nothing is magical; if magic becomes the norm, if ordinary physics and logistics cease to matter to your storytelling, then you fall down a very deep rabbithole of handwavery. Douglass in particular seems fixated on closure and the idea that every character, every loose end, must be accounted for, wrapped up, tied off, and connected (Urbeth’s secret identity, revealed in this story, is a prime example). Yet I would argue that one of the most powerful actions a writer can take is to leave some mystery, leave some questions unanswered—not in a way that creates inconsistencies or continuity errors, and hopefully not in a way that leaves readers unsatisfied. Rather, leave enough room for interpretation and speculation and doubt, because that’s what keeps our brains hooked on your world.
Pilgrim actually has some worthwhile moments in it. But it is buried beneath a torrent of weird violence, sex, and substandard storytelling. I have one more book in this series to go, and then I will be happy to draw a line beneath these books forevermore.