The title sucks. I absolutely hate the title. (Banewreaker! He wreaks banes!) But the novel itself, Jacqueline Carey’s fourth and the first volume in a diptych titled The Sundering, is an often powerful piece of work that shores up Carey’s reputation as one of modern fantasy’s more formidable talents. Though its first half is too slow-moving for its own good, by the time the novel is in the home stretch Carey has delivered setpieces of such elemental force that you’ll be gobsmacked. A lot of epic fantasies try, but few hit their marks with such precision. This is what we read this genre for.
The premise is a doozy, and one I’m surprised more fantasists haven't done anything with: are dark lords really evil or just misunderstood? The misunderstood dark lord in question here is Satoris, third among the Seven Shapers, demigods who created all life on the world of Urulat following its creation upon the death of the deity Uru-Alat. The firstborn among the Shapers, Heomane, views himself as the de facto ruler of the others, and is responsible for creating the immortal Ellyl race and investing them with the Gift of intellect. Out of love for his sister Arihala, second among the Shapers, he also gave this Gift to mortal Men, who were her creation.
Satoris’ Gift was sexual desire (would it be a Carey novel without an erotic element?), and though Heomane declined this gift for the Ellylon, Arihala accepted it for Men. In no time Men began to overrun Urulat, waging war on the Ellylon, whose numbers naturally dwindled. Satoris’ refusal of Heomane’s demand that he withdraw his Gift from Men resulted in a cataclysmic war in which Heomane sundered Urulat, causing a massive ocean to separate Satoris from the rest of the Shapers and Ellylon. The island continent where he now lives in seclusion in his keep at Darkhaven is also inhabited by Men, some unfortunate Ellyl trapped by the Sundering (who call themselves the Rivenlost), and other lesser races like fjeltrolls and the wolflike Were.
Getting all this? Good, we’re not quite done.
Anyway, Heomane propagandizes the races of Urulat against his brother, blaming Satoris for the Sundering and depicting him as evil incarnate, out to enslave all the world's peoples. For his part, Satoris just wants to be left alone in his bitterness. He has been gravely wounded in battle with one of Heomane's champions, who stabbed him with a dagger called Godslayer, made of one of the broken shards of Uru-Alat's magic. (This wound also finally stripped Satoris of his Gift.) But Satoris managed to take possession of Godslayer, which he now preserves at Darkhaven, so that neither Heomane or his followers can have the one weapon guaranteed to kill him.
That's just the backstory, boys and girls! The novel gets rolling when a red star appears in the heavens, a sign from Arihala that a prophecy foretelling Satoris' imminent downfall is near to fulfillment. Satoris, as the story opens, is a little ahead in the game. He has raised three champions of his own to fight Heomane's three champions. Heomane is now down to one. But that one is making strides. Heomane's champions were given three magical stones and three powerful weapons to fight Satoris. One of Satoris' champions is the embittered Tanaros Kingslayer. Satoris used Godslayer to mark Tanaros, making him immortal. Now, Tanaros concocts a plan to abduct the Ellylon princess, Cerelinde.
When all of these best-laid plans begin to fall apart, as they must, the story finally kicks into high gear after about two hundred pages of laying out all of those plot intricacies I just tried to summarize. I’ll get my carping out of the way first. It’s a common failing of epic fantasies to be excessively plot-heavy. But in Banewreaker, Carey manages to keep a handle on everything by never allowing too many details to clutter the narrative at once. Many writers make the mistake of infodumping. Carey only succumbs to this in her prologue, which reads like something out of the Old Testament and includes at least one sentence that actually begins with “And it came to pass…”.
But from that point on, the plot begins to unspool pretty clearly. While Banewreaker can’t really be thought of as a Tolkien riff, there’s no denying that Carey has taken more than a few inspirational cues from the Professor. Names like Núrilin, Valmaré and Numireth bear an unmistakably Tolkienian stamp. Viewed one way, Banewreaker's plot could be seen as The Lord of the Rings with Sauron depicted sympathetically. Satoris is the victim of slanderous press who does all he can to avoid becoming the thing everyone believes he is (he refuses to kill the captive Cerelinde, insisting that she is his guest), while finding himself unable to avoid fighting a ruthless war he never wanted.
One more gripe: Carey also falls into the common trap of lapsing into stilted and pretentious “mythic” prose stylings, which affect both her main narrative and dialogue. It isn’t pervasive, but characters do occasionally say things like “So mote it be,” and Carey sometimes broadsides us with a really appalling sentence like “Few folk noted aught awry” when she should have just written that “Few people noticed anything wrong.” Word of advice to all fantasy writers: please, plain English will serve you well every time. I know there’s a school of thought that believes fantasies sound more fantasy-like if written by writers who think they’re channeling Geoffrey Chaucer. Don’t you believe it. Carey never pulled this nonsense in her Kushiel books and she didn’t need to here. Thankfully, such infractions of literary taste are minor.
Where Banewreaker comes up aces is in Carey’s successful fleshing-out of the story’s emotional and moral core. It takes a while for most of her characters to rise above their archetypal origins. But the ones who do get some powerful scenes as a reward. One of the most impressively realized characters is Carfax, a loyal soldier of Tanaros’ who finds himself captured by a party of Heomane’s followers. Circumstances lead him to develop a whopping case of Stockholm Syndrome, and his confusion and anguish over his betrayal of Satoris is given a gut-wrenching depiction.
Also in Banewreaker we are presented with the remarkable spectacle of a fantasy that’s — well, morally ambiguous isn’t the right term. Rather, Carey presents both sides of this conflict as having nothing but the sincerest convictions concerning the rightness of their actions. Cerelinde and Tanaros argue and come to a grudging respect (Carey’s hinting of a budding attraction is a little harder to swallow). French filmmaker François Truffaut once said something to the effect that there’s no good or evil in the world, just men with ideas. While you might argue that point, in the context of this story, it’s a powerful theme that can be translated to real life situations all too easily. Carey also has strong chops for taking what could be thought of as predictability and reframing it so that it comes across as tragic inevitability.
So despite some nitpicks about her style, I have few reservations in recommending this. I continue to be surprised, delighted and impressed by Jacqueline Carey, and I think you will too.