Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey
I first heard of Jacqueline Carey when Naamah’s Curse was released this summer; while it sounded interesting, it also sounded like romance with a fantasy twist, rather than the other way around. But I perked up when Brandon Sanderson recommended her series The Sundering in an essay on postmodern fantasy. Once I discovered it was a deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings, I had to read it. I have to space out reading deconstructions, because they can be so dark and cynical, but I have a bit of a mania for deconstructive fantasy. I hoped Banewreaker would hit the spot.
It blew me away.
Banewreaker takes place on the world of Urulat, a world populated by Ellylon, Men, Dwarfs, Weres, Fjeltrolls–and gods. Satoris Third-Born was once one of the divine Seven Shapers, headed by Haomane First-Born, but Satoris refused to bow to his brother’s will and remove desire, his divine Gift, from Men’s hearts. The war that ensued Sundered the world, leaving the Six Shapers on the now mystical island of Torath and Satoris in Urulat, with the other mortal races–who believe that the Sundering is all Satoris’ fault and curse his name. When he impending marriage of a Ellylon noblewoman to a Man threatens to fulfill a prophecy that speaks of the end of Satoris, the Shaper sends his Commander General, Tanaros Blacksword, to kidnap the noblewoman Cerelinde to prevent the marriage. But Haomane wants war, and even the plans of gods can go awry.
As I’ve mentioned before, a good deconstruction needs to mimic the conditions of the work it’s deconstructing; this is something quite different than being simply derivative, à la Eragon. When it comes to what Banewreaker has taken from The Lord of the Rings, we have an evil that fell from grace (even the epithet of the book is taken from Paradise Lost), similar races (the Ellylon are essentially elves), a Company, and a similar plot. But Carey just doesn’t make this original by placing the camera in a different location; things are deeper and more complex here. Much like A Song of Ice and Fire, there is no ultimate good or ultimate evil; everyone truly believes in what they believe in. The hilariously named Carfax (I’m sure the etymology is sound, but still!) is a perfect illustration; a footman in Satoris’ army, he finds himself a captive of the Company, where he encounters beliefs he’s never thought about and learns to doubt. And this complexity isn’t limited solely to the characters; even the worldbuilding gets it. A patronizing view towards other races is rendered by making literal the Renaissance theory that people had dark skin because they were burnt by the sun–a nice take on the Anglo-Saxon foundations of Middle-earth.
Banewreaker is definitely epic sweeping fantasy; it opens with a prologue about the Sundering, and the language feels downright chivalric. Personally, reading it felt like coming home, since fantasy is my genre, although I could see how it might throw people used to snappier prose for a loop. But the pace never drags; I actually put the book down one night, intending to sleep–only to find the light back on and the book back in my lap. I really wish I could go into each character in-depth and tell you why I liked them–how Tanaros will never escape the fact he murdered his wife and king, Ushashin’s mother issues, Cerelinde slowly realizing the world isn’t black and white… but I can’t pick favorites. I liked them all, on either side. It certainly makes for thrilling battles, when you don’t know which side you want to cheer on.
Banewreaker is part of a duet, so it’s half of a complete story. I’ve railed against several books that do this, as I think it’s lazy and downright mean to crack a plot in half. But Banewreaker proves it can be done properly. Carey has worked out the proper plot structure to do such a thing. Banewreaker’s climax is the siege of Beshtanag, a wild, dark battle that has harsh consequences for both sides. The novel continues afterwards in order to set up things for the next part, but there’s a sense of motion as the forces of Darkhaven collect themselves and Cerelinde begins to doubt her devotion to the side of “good”. It reminded me a little of the film adaptation of The Two Towers, which successfully turned a third of a novel into a complete film; a sense of completion, but a sense of things to come. You’re definitely going to want to pick up Godslayer immediately, but you don’t feel cheated by Banewreaker. (Of course, now that I know it can be done properly, I will only rail louder against books that don’t.)
Bottom line: How can I put this? Read it. Carey populates a thoughtful deconstruction of The Lord of the Rings with characters so complex and human that you don’t know which side you want to win. I was utterly blown away, and I hope you will be too.
I rented this book from the public library.