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Jacqueline Carey – Banewreaker

December 26, 2011

159. Banewreaker by Jacqueline Carey (2004)
The Sundering, Book 1

Length: 487 pages
Genre: Fantasy

Started: 20 November 2011
Finished: 06 December 2011

Where did it come from? Bookmooch.
Why do I have it? Clare’s fault.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 February 2011.

War is trickier
when the good guys are bigger
jerks than the bad guys.

Summary: In ages past, the seven Shapers made the world and all of the beings who dwelt therein. Haomane, Lord of Thought, eldest of the Shapers, and creator of the Ellylon, became angry with Sartoris, who would not withdraw his gift of quickening from their sister’s children, the race of Man. In their struggles, the world was sundered, and Sartoris separated from the rest of his siblings, to dwell in exile. But while he holds Banewreaker, a blade capable of killing even a Shaper, Haomane can make no overt move against him, and so he bides in his stronghold of Darkhaven, along with his three lieutenants, men who left mortality behind when they swore to the Sunderer’s service.

However, there is a prophecy that predicts Sartoris’s downfall, a prophecy which speaks, among other things, of a wedding of a daughter of the Ellylon and a son of the lineage of mortal kings. Sartoris sends his general, Tanaros, to disrupt the wedding and kidnap the Ellylon bride, Cerelinde. Tanaros does this willingly, but he is haunted by thoughts of his mortal life, and the betrayals he has committed… but is he now keeping faith with the right side?

Review: If it’s not immediately obvious from my summary, the Sundering duology draws very, very heavily upon Tolkien. And not just in the way that a lot of modern fantasy relies upon Tolkien, but in actual point-by-point plot parallels. The prologue, that describes the Sundering, is more-or-less a direct recap of The Silmarillion, and a lot of the action of the story parallels The Lord of the Rings (right down to the fellowship of good guys that are accompanying an unsophisticated boy who carries an immensely heavy object that is the only way to defeat the bad guy). However, these parallels are clearly intentional, meant as a way of retelling the story from a different perspective, so they read as homage rather than rip-off.

And actually, I found the story a lot easier to get through once I stopped looking for direct parallels (an activity hampered by the fact that I haven’t read The Silmarillion in six years), and started enjoying the story for its own sake. Carey includes plenty of story elements that have no direct relation to Tolkien’s world, and as the story progressed, and I got more and more caught up in *this* world and *these* characters, I started enjoying the story on its own merits, as well as for the light it shines onto the more familiar works.

Retelling a story from the bad guy’s point of view isn’t exactly a new idea – Wicked is the most obvious, though far from the only, example – but I’ve never before seen it applied to epic fantasy. One of the hallmarks of a lot of epic fantasy is the ultimate battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and it’s always quite clear who the good guys are, and why they do what they do. What Carey’s accomplished with Banewreaker is to turn everything on its head, so that the side with all of the typical bad-guy trappings (land of eternal darkness, giant spiders, wounds weeping black ichor, etc.) are the protagonists, and their motives are completely understandable.

In the thousands of years she had lived, she had never doubted the nature of truth. Now uncertainty assailed her; doubt and insidious pity. A thing she had never before grasped had grown clear: the Sunderer believed his own lies. And in the irregular glimmer of the marrow-fire, a worm of doubt whispered a thought.
What if they were not lies? – pg. 312

Actually, what Carey’s done is made the reader (me, at least), want to root for the bad guys. Sartoris is not particularly evil, and just wants to be left alone… and honestly, for all that he’s the lord of light and thought and everything, Haomane’s kind of a dick. But there’s a clear element of tragedy to things as well, because we’ve all read epic fantasy before, which means we all know that good is ultimately going to win, even though you might actually like the bad guys more. It’s a fascinating turnabout, and makes me want to go back and re-read Tolkien with a closer eye on the ostensible bad guys, and see if they’re really so bad after all. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: It’s not a casual read – Carey’s language and tone are such that a fair bit of attention and time is required to really get into the story – but I think that most Tolkien fans (particularly those who don’t view all derivative works as sacrilege) should enjoy Carey’s perspective.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Book Blog. Period., Ela’s Book Blog, The Literary Omnivore, The Wertzone
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The place was called Gorgantum.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2011 10:00 am

    I’ve considered reading this a couple times now… I’ve read Carey’s “Kushiel’s Legacy” series and enjoyed it tremendously, and despite obvious ripoffs as far as plot, there were still a lot of unique elements that were unlike anything I’d ever read before.

    • December 26, 2011 12:26 pm

      Grace – I’ve got the first Kushiel book on my TBR pile, but I decided to start this series first since a) it’s only two books, and b) I already had both of them. I like Carey’s writing a lot (from this book and a few of her short stories I’ve read), so I’m definitely going to get into the Kushiel books at some point.

  2. December 26, 2011 12:17 pm

    I find The Sundering to be a fantastic deconstruction of Tolkien, and I saw that as a fervent Ringer. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and I look forward to your thoughts on Godslayer, if you are so inclined to pick it up.

    • December 26, 2011 12:29 pm

      Omni – Oh, I acquired both books on the strength of your original recommendation! Godslayer‘s going to get read, but I’m waiting for next week when I’ll have the time and attention to devote to it. I tried reading Banewreaker over Thanksgiving, with family all around, and it just wasn’t a book that I could read in twenty-minute chunks here and there, and I’m figuring Godslayer will be the same way. Once the holidays are over, though, it’s top of the pile!

  3. December 26, 2011 8:37 pm

    I really enjoyed these! I picked them up because George R. R. Martin recommended them on the “What I’m reading” page on his website. I like her writing style and have been meaning to read more of her books ever since.

    • December 28, 2011 2:12 pm

      Me too! I got it as per R. R. Martin. He has GREAT taste!

    • January 3, 2012 10:19 am

      Laura – I love Martin’s books but have never gone to check out his website… looks like I should remedy that!

  4. December 28, 2011 10:28 am

    You’ve nailed pretty much precisely why I enjoyed these books so much when I read them, even though reviews at the time suggested they weren’t as good as the Kushiel series (which I flat out adore). I loved the way these turned LotR on its head. Like you, I couldn’t remember anyone doing that before – it felt a little bit treasonous, in the best possible way.

    • January 3, 2012 10:20 am

      “treasonous, in the best possible way”

      That’s a great description! And it sounds like I really, really need to get to the Kushiel books… which I knew already, but this is just confirming it.

  5. December 28, 2011 1:06 pm

    I have this… I might even get to read it one of these days!

    • January 3, 2012 10:20 am

      Kailana – It’s not a light read – takes some time and mental effort, but I think it’s well-rewarded.

  6. Cec permalink
    December 28, 2011 2:21 pm

    I loved this series, but it broke my heart to see the good guys win.

    • January 3, 2012 10:21 am

      Cec – I still haven’t gotten to the second book, but I can guess what’s coming, and I know it’s going to break my heart as well.

  7. December 30, 2011 12:56 pm

    This is one of my favorite series of books of all time. I absolutely adored them, and it broke my heart too, when the good guys won. It was fun to read something completely different than the Kushiel series (which I also love). Carey is an amazing author, no matter what she’s turning out.

    • January 3, 2012 10:22 am

      Tammie – Good to hear that I’ve got a lot of good reading ahead of me! I love discovering new authors!

  8. June 8, 2017 7:26 am

    I’ve been wanting to read this book (and the follow up) for ages. Sadly, the paperback edition seems to be out of print because I can never find new copies of it anywhere. And though I’m no fan of Tolkien, this sounds like a fantastic book, and your review makes me want to read it even more.

    Jacqueline Carey has been my favourite author for over a decade now, and there is no other writer whose abilities I admire and envy more. The only other author’s in the same class as her (in my opinion) are Guy Gavriel Kay and Lois McMaster Bujold.

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