Review of Starman by Sara Douglass
by Sara Douglass
It’s time to finish off my re-read of the first trilogy of The Wayfarer Redemption with Starman, the conclusion of Axis’ battle against Gorgrael to fulfil a Prophecy and recreate the land of Tencendor. I seem to have stumbled into a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts situation here: I want to give this book two stars, but the series as a whole has actually been much more enjoyable than the individual books ever were.
Spoilers for this book and the previous two books, because I want to dig into this whole trilogy.
So Axis and Azhure get to be gods … yay? Although gods in this universe are not quite omnipotent beings, but rather just extremely magical, and “Lesser” creatures like WolfStar can hold their own against individual gods at times … yeah, the rules of this universe are frustrating sometimes. This series is a good example of falling in love with one’s own worldbuilding. Whereas the previous two books privileged plot, Starman stops pretending with that bullshit and just surrenders to the temptation to drown us with exposition. Almost every scene offers up an excuse to have a metaphysical conversation about the nature of the universe, the various gods, etc.
Now, the geeky part of me loves the ideas that Sara Douglass provides us. The idea that the Star Gods, Artor, etc., all showed up through the Star Gate or otherwise, and that they are perhaps just Sufficiently Advanced Aliens (this can be inferred but isn’t outright stated) is so cool to me. The problem is that if all you have are cool ideas, without much in the way of interesting plot, then this might as well be a RPG universe instead of, you know, a story.
Moreover, some of the exposition goes a little too far. In previous books, WolfStar/the Dark Man were intriguing antagonists because his motivations were so murky. Was he on the side of Axis or Gorgrael? Or Prophecy? (His identity as the Prophet is pretty easy to deduce if you pay attention, although given the monotonous length of these books, I don’t fault anyone whose attention lapses.) Starman clears that up fairly easily. WolfStar declares his intentions repeatedly and clearly for anyone who wants to know … and that caused my interest in him as a character to drop to zero. I don’t really care to sympathize with him on the basis of being a slave to the Prophecy he himself developed.
Similarly, Douglass seems to be in a rush to cast each main character into a crucible so that they can achieve their Final Form as soon as possible. Axis, Azhure, Faraday, etc., all experience major changes and powerups in terms of their abilities and understanding of their place in the world. Yet none of them, with the exception perhaps of the woobie Faraday, really earn this. It’s just dropped on them because it’s part of the story. Whereas Axis spends most of the first two books earning the loyalty of his men through his courage and honour, in this book he’s fairly useless and even petulant.
It’s all the fault of the damnable Prophecy, honestly! Take the whole Rainbow Scepter thing. Multiple people tell Axis he has to show up on Fire-Night to get the scepter from the Avar. Everyone seems to know about this scepter and the role it plays in Axis defeating Gorgrael. What was once a cryptic Prophecy now seems crystalline, and in this way the story transforms from one of epic fantasy into a middle-of-the-road fantasy RPG full of NPCs who direct you in your quest. “Get Rainbow Scepter.” “Go to the Ice Fortress.” “Kill Gorgrael.” This applies to characters other than Axis. It started with Timozel in book one; he switches sides mostly because of WolfStar’s mental assault than because of any true decision to betray Axis and Faraday. But we’ve got situations like Azhure showing up in Smyrton to help Faraday not through any decision of her own but because another, otherwise pointless character tells her that’s her role in the matter. It’s not that it’s predictable, because Douglass doesn’t even try to maintain anything approaching suspense. It’s linear, straightforward, and entirely telegraphed ahead of time.
I’m not sure if this is because Starman is worried that the readers just aren’t smart enough to get it, or if it’s just the way in which Douglass is captivated by the Prophecy she has woven throughout this trilogy. In any event, the result is a serious lack of suspense for almost the entire book. Nothing seems to be in jeopardy, even when traumatic events (like the abduction of Caelum) happen with maximum melodrama. Speaking of which—the whole thing where Azhure unilaterally mind-wipes her own kid because he plotted to sell-out his older brother to Gorgrael? That’s fucked up. I mean, DragonStar’s behaviour is fucked up, but he’s still ultimately a vulnerable child, whereas Azhure is a fully-grown woman and Icarii Enchantress. One of the main themes of this series seems to be that powerful people make for terrible parents.
Despite all these criticisms, I still enjoyed reading these books, even if perhaps my opinion of the series isn’t very high. Douglass has a stunning fantastical imagination, and she is great at creating unique and complex characters. Her stewardship of those characters through three books, however, leaves much to be desired. If Starman succeeds, it is in spite of its use of what are now considered cliché fantasy tropes, not because of those tropes. I’m not even sure I would go so far as to say it succeeds. The series is a feverish dream of so many cool elements tied together by a plot that doesn’t quite work and characters who are either too powerful, too prideful, or too underutilized (sometimes a combination of all three) to really be interesting or sympathetic.
But wait … my journey will continue with the sequel trilogy! Because I am a glutton for punishment and also I bought those three books cheaply when I bought these three, so … onwards!