Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey
When I marched up to the library shelf at the Ca-Ch section, I was ready. I was gonna grab myself something by the prolific Jaqueline Carey, and I was gonna find out what the fuss was about. The first Kushiel books were out, but here was another series, with properly artsy covers. I was going to read something by Carey, and by golly, I did.
The Banewrecker blurb hit all the right keywords. We have a banished, immortal general, scarred by the betrayals of his past and serving the dark lord. We have the kidnapping a elf-ish princess in an attempt to prevent a prophecy from coming to pass. And we have the book pointing its metaphorical finger and saying in a stage whisper, “They’re so gonna get together!”
The prologue, as a properly high-handed fantasy ought, opens up with an origin myth that explains the powers of all the seven gods (wisdom, love, abundance…):
“Satoris [the main character’s god], once called the Sower, was Third-Born at the juncture of the loins, and in the quickening of the flesh lay his gift.” (10)
Wait, waaaaait? The Satan-character of this story is the god of sex? Come again?
So you can appreciate why I went in expecting fantasy lite (read: romantic farce) with all the trappings of a fantastical world for the sake of an overblown romantic plot–and a few adventures as afterthoughts. Never really having looked into it, I’d decided Banewalker was going to be a bit like Anne Bishop-meets-Sharon-Shinn (neither of whose writings impress me much, but where’s a canary to go to get some luff?).
Well, so much for my assumptions.
Instead, what I got was a face-full of epic-style yarn-weaving. It’s Tolkien-style high fantasy about the underdog with a hefty dose of gray-shade morality. The story itself was maddening in the best sense of the word. The characters were human enough to be dynamic, each with their own lives, loyalties and reasons for doing what they did.
Sartoris’ brother, the god of wisdom (and all things good and proper, according to his followers), is hell-bent on destroying Sartoris and everything under his power. At each turn, Satoris’ forces are faced with mounting odds, their plans failing as the forces of good begin their inevitable march towards the inevitable triumph of good over evil.
What made it even better (or perhaps worse) was that our heroes…weren’t. Not quite and not all the way. Many of the protagonists got themselves shoulder deep in some objectionable activities, ranging from enslaving people to their will to slaughtering innocents.
The potential for the romantic subplot I mentioned at the beginning is, indeed, still there, but muted. Our kidnapped lady is loyal to her human betrothed, and to her cause. There are no easy transformations there, and being good and kind isn’t enough in this book to overcome millennia of war.
It is a mark of strength for The Banewrecker that even after I finished the book, I had no sense of whether I could expect any of my favorite characters to survive in its sequel.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely.
But the story remains at a solid three not because of my expectations of luff-fluff or the pretty standard fare of the world-building, but because The Banewrecker made me sad. Not sad in the sense of typos, twisted grammar, and Mary Sues, but the gray narrative stretch of being unable to see any resolution at the end of the tunnel. The characters maneuvered, and in turn were maneuvered by each other into actions they would not have chosen otherwise.
The story, as I read finished it up around 6am, was steeped in a tired despair that dropped my mood even lower than the knowledge that I had to go to work that morning. I had no interest in finding out what was going to happen next. I was just glad this was done and I’d be moving on to something else.
I will not be getting the second Sundering book. That is why this is a three for me.
Full disclosure: I would give Lord of the Rings a three, too. Maybe a two. Reading that trilogy was a chore and I can honestly say I enjoyed Banewalker more.