The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey

December 11, 2011 at 11:31 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments

Long ago, the inhabitants of the world lived in peace with the Seven Shapers, the godlike rulers of the world. But eventually Satoris, third-born among the Shapers, refused to obey a command from the eldest, Haomane, and in the resulting war the world was sundered. The other six Shapers were cut off from the world and its people, leaving them alone with the rebel Satoris. In the fighting, Satoris was gravely wounded but not destroyed, the dragons who fought for him were mostly killed but not wholly extinguished, and his fjelltroll servants lived still in the mountainous west. Satoris now bides his time, building his forces in his great fortress of Darkhaven, but a prophecy says that one day he and his servants will be cast down and the world will be healed.

It has been said that all epic fantasy can’t help but be in some sort of dialogue with Tolkien, but since the practice of making shallow copies of his work finally went out of style in the mid-1990s, it’s rare for a story to cleave as closely to Tolkien’s model as Jacqueline Carey’s two book series The Sundering does. The backstory is full of equivalences to The Silmarillion, with Shapers instead of Valar, Soumanie instead of silmarils, dragons instead of balrogs, ellyon instead of elves, and fjelltroll instead of orcs. The actual story told in the two novels is likewise similar to that of Lord of the Rings, with easily discerned analogues for Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Elrond, Legolas, and so forth. That’s not to say the story is exactly the same. In this story, for example, the Gandalf-analogue recruits a fellowship in order to retrieve the Water of Life and use it to extinguish marrow-fire that protects Godslayer, the only weapon capable of harming Satoris. But as in Lord of the Rings, the fellowship is eventually broken, the Frodo and Sam analogues must journey on alone into the enemy’s land, and their surviving companions go on to take a hand in the general war.

Carey clearly expects her readers to have read at least Lord of the Rings, and the point of all these close correspondences is to subvert them. The story is mostly told from the point of view of Satoris’ followers, particularly the Ringwraith analogues Tanaros, Vorax, and Ushahin, though lesser members of Satoris’ army also get a fair amount of time. Even though the world has been told Satoris is the dark lord, the equivalent of Sauron and Morgoth, it turns out he’s…just misunderstood. He doesn’t want to enslave the world, he just wants to be left alone, but the Ellyon and humans are being manipulated by the Gandalf-analogue into starting a pointless war with him.

Well, is your mind blown? The answer to that question, I think, depends on how much fantasy published in the last twenty years you’ve read. There’s no question that Lord of the Rings involves lots of relatively unimportant people accepting without question a narrative given to them by powerful elites, then fighting, risking their lives, and sometimes dying to realize the ambitions of these elites. The relationship characters have to authority in Lord of the Rings should absolutely challenged, and The Sundering does so with gusto. My only question is whether, in light of everything else that’s been going on in the fantasy genre, this was really necessary. Lord of the Rings was published in 1955, and dozens if not hundreds of stories have since re-examined its assumptions. Just to mention a few examples, the Thomas Covenant novels went after the concept of the destined hero, Glen Cook’s Black Company series considered the moral complicity of those fighting on the side of evil, and many books, most recently those of Joe Abercrombie, have rejected the good/evil dichotomy entirely. But those examples I just mentioned position their stories much farther away from Tolkien’s work and do a much better job standing on their own while still making their points about the assumptions of epic fantasy.

That said, the two novels that make up The Sundering were published in 2004 and 2005, so we can guess they were probably written while the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out and Tolkien’s story was being brought to the vast cinematic audience, most of whom haven’t read and won’t ever read genre fantasy. I’m not sure how many of those people are likely to read The Sundering, but it’s also true that Jacqueline Carey’s popular Kushiel series has earned her a following that may read more from other sections of the fantasy genre. Your mileage may vary, but for me at least, just subverting Tolkien tropes isn’t enough to impress me any more.

Unfortunately, the extremely close relationship The Sundering has with Tolkien often works against it. Whenever The Sundering introduces characters, concepts, and places that have clear Tolkien equivalents, it’s hard to resist comparing Carey’s prose to that of Tolkien. People who find Tolkien long-winded and dull may not have a problem here, for Carey doesn’t share his fascination with landscapes and tends to focus much more on the interior feelings of characters (but then again, they may still, for Carey does follow Tolkien in employing an elevated and archaic grammar, and unlike Frodo and Sam her protagonists aren’t positioned to mediate between the reader and the secondary world). Whatever you think of his style, however, Tolkien loved the world he had created, and that came through in his writing. Carey has taken someone else’s setting and filed off the serial numbers, so it’s only natural she should be more interested in the points of divergence, but the result is that she tends to tell just enough about a setting or a minor character to allow the reader to figure out the Tolkien analogue, then she moves on. The result is a world that feels like a pale shadow of the Middle-earth it constantly evokes. It doesn’t help that shifting the perspective to the other side has relegated the many fleshed out characters of Lord of the Rings to bit player status, causing their characterization to inevitably suffer in comparison to the original.

The characters who get the most time are those who are most independent of Tolkien, namely the servants of Satoris and the vaguely Arwen-equivalent Cerelinde. If there’s a main character, it’s Tanaros, who while distantly connected to the Witch-King of Angmar has a much more fleshed out and interesting backstory. Centuries ago he was the childhood friend and chief lieutenant of the human king, but when he found out his beloved wife had slept with the king, he killed them both in a rage. Fleeing justice, he was granted immortality by Satoris in return for training the fjelltroll army and leading it into battle. More than even Satoris himself, Tanaros has a villainous past to go along with his reputation as an evil servant of the dark lord, but Carey paints him in sympathetic tones as a deeply conflicted person who still feels guilty about what he did, but who has learned to love Satoris and believe in his cause.

Tanaros and the others who fight for Satoris are well-drawn characters, but they are part of a story that becomes progressively less interesting. In Carey’s world, the “good guys” aren’t bad, per se, just manipulated and gullible, while the “bad guys” are flawed but honorable. Through the first book, Banewreaker, that and some fairly large plot departures from the Lord of the Rings template make for a reasonably good story. But as the story goes on, it tracks closer and closer with the standard epic fantasy plot. Having encouraging us to sympathize with the bad guys, she lets the reader feel their frustration as the protagonists see their various strategies to stop the ringbearer-analogue and disarm the prophecy all come to nothing. Much of the tragedy of the ending stems from its predictability, but the fact remains…the ending is extremely predictable. Toward the end of Godslayer, Satoris even announces he has essentially lost interest and takes steps to get the story over with as fast as possible. If even the leader of one side of an epic fantasy war can’t stay interested, it’s no surprise if some readers feel the same way.

This plodding predictability is built into the metaphysics that Carey has constructed to replace the dualism of Tolkien. Satoris is not the evil demon everyone thinks he is, but he’s not a saint either. He occasionally does genuinely evil things, usually because he’s been driven into a rage. It seems that Uru-Alat, the one God who created the world (or perhaps is the world) and birthed the seven Shapers, didn’t just create the universe, he created an overarching story and assigned roles in that story. Satoris feels he has been assigned the role of villain and forced to play that role against his wishes. This theme plays out in all the major characters of the book, who are forced by circumstances to take on the good or evil roles of the epic fantasy story regardless of their personal desires. This theme is, finally, something that strikes me as completely unique to The Sundering, but it means that the sort of surprising ending modern readers expect would undermine the nature of the world as it has been constructed. Worse, however, this whole “forced to be a villain” business seems to me like a more problematic world view than the one she’s attacking.

Lord of the Rings doesn’t have a whole lot to say about fate beyond some vague allusions to providence, but destiny is at the center of The Silmarillion. In its mythological opening section, The Silmarillion explains that the angelic servants of Eru, the one God, sang the world into existence according to Eru’s theme. This divine music doesn’t just create the world, it creates time, and contains the entire sweep of history and the lives of every person who ever lived. Melkor, the Satan-analogue (for The Silmarillion is built off Christianity almost to the same degree The Sundering is built off The Silmarillion) wants to sing music of his own creation, music that is in discord with Eru’s theme. In response Eru changes his theme so that it incorporates and builds off Melkor’s discord, and says that though Melkor meant to twist the music into something of his own control, he has merely been a tool by which Eru has enhanced the music and made it even greater than it would have been otherwise.

The point of this summary is that Tolkien was using his fantasy setting to construct an argument about the Problem of Evil. If a good God is supreme in the world, how can evil exist? Tolkien’s courageous answer, developed throughout The Silmarillion, is that the world is a better place with evil in it. This isn’t a review of The Silmarillion so I’ll leave for another day the question of how persuasive Tolkien is on this point, but what are we to make of Carey’s metaphysics? There’s no such thing as evil, she seems to say, just people whose circumstances have forced them to play antagonist to self-appointed good guys. In The Sundering, Uru-Alat seems to be like Eru in that he has laid out the story of history, but he didn’t get his characters quite right and has been forced to jam square pegs into round holes.

I have two major problems here. The first is that The Sundering seems to say there’s no such thing as evil. Personally, I think there are people, albeit not many, who can usefully be called evil. I suppose Hitler is the canonical example. I know some people reject this, and while I’m not convinced, I understand where they’re coming from. Maybe seemingly evil people are just warped by their circumstances. But the Problem of Evil isn’t just about human behavior, it’s about the world. What are we to make of natural disasters, disease, and all the other pointless suffering in the world? If there’s no God, that’s not an issue, but once you posit an Eru or an Uru-Alat they become responsible for these things. I suppose that Carey never says that Uru-Alat is good, but there are subtle aspects of the narrative that make Uru-Alat and his plan seem good in a way that Haomane and Satoris aren’t.

The other problem is Carey’s idea that her bad guys are forced into doing bad by their circumstances, and even by the expectations of those around them. This is a seductive idea and she does a good job encouraging the reader to sympathize when characters like Satoris and Tanaros do bad things after being painted into a corner. But at the end of the day, those things are still bad. Discovering the adultery between his wife and the king deeply angered Tanaros, for example, but that doesn’t excuse murdering them. For his part, Satoris frequently complains about how he never wanted a war, but that doesn’t stop him from fighting a long and bloody war when it is “forced” on him.

This issue is best demonstrated when the “good guys” gather armies and attack Lilias, a sorceress who uses a silmaril-equivalent to unnaturally lengthen her life and mind-control people into serving her. Carey puts all her considerable skill as an author into making Lilias sympathetic and succeeds. But Lilias, more than any other “evil” character in The Sundering, is actually, you know, evil. Like Satoris, she didn’t want a war and hoped to be left to her own devices, but her own devices consist of using magic to brainwash people into serving her. That’s it. That, and giving herself eternal youth and beauty, was all she ever did with her considerable magic power, though it had many other possible uses. The active evil of twisting the wills of other people and the passive evil of not using her power to better ends make her a genuine villain, but the worst comes when the armies of humans and ellyon come to end her reign and she sends her brainwashed servants to fight against overwhelming odds. At first, she thinks she can win thanks to an arrangement she has made with Satoris, and honestly tells her defenders that they only have to hold out for a few days to win. Soon, however, she learns that due to a catastrophe elsewhere, Satoris’ forces won’t be able to come to her aid, and the fight really is hopeless. Her response? She lies about the situation to those fighting for her and lets the pointless fight continue until just about everyone who served her is dead. She, of course, is captured alive.

Why, she is asked later by her captors, did she not surrender when she learned that Satoris could not save her? She had genuine affection for her servants, so why allow them to needlessly die? She doesn’t give a straight answer. Before the armies reach her, she rejects the idea of running away on the grounds that this is her home, and if she can’t continue living there the (horrifying) way she has been, she doesn’t want to continue living. But after the armies fight, it seems she allows the slaughter to continue just because she feels like she’s a victim of unprovoked aggression and she wants to hurt her attackers as much as possible. Lilias is so contemptible when the facts are dispassionately considered it is difficult to describe just how sympathetically the narrative actually views her. Although questions about her behavior are briefly raised, her status as a victim is never given the strong challenge it deserves.

What is Jacqueline Carey trying to say with characters like Lilias, Taranos, and Satoris? It’s not clear from the text, but my best guess is she’s saying that reasonable people sometimes do things they later realize were bad, but if they acknowledge their crime and submit to the justice of others, they are accepting guilt not just for their true crimes, but also for all the false allegations that have been slanderously applied to them. As bad as Lilias is, she’s not as evil as she is said to be, and with Tanaros and especially Satoris the discrepancy is even wider. Giving in to the “good guys” means accepting their false narrative. It also means implicitly endorsing them as good guys, but they aren’t perfect either, the argument seems to run. They’ve committed their own crimes, so not only would surrendering accept too much guilt, it would help them to whitewash their own actions.

I can accept that this sort of thinking exists in the real world, but the text seems to go farther and actually endorse it. The author, English majors will remind us, is different from the text, so perhaps Carey herself thinks otherwise. She might have been trying to get the reader to understand how evil people aren’t evil in their own minds, but if so, she leaves a lot of work for the reader to do. As far as the text is concerned, these characters really aren’t evil at all. They’ve done some bad things, but they feel guilty about them, so if anything that means they’re better people than those on the side of “good” who aren’t self-aware enough to realize they also have done some bad things in their day.

The determination of Lilias and later Satoris to fight on against overwhelming odds is another theme The Sundering has adapted from Tolkien and taken in problematic directions. In The Silmarillion, the Elves keep fighting against Morgoth even though they know they can’t win. Because Morgoth is a genuinely destructive force to which there can be no possible surrender, the Elves’ fight mirrors the real human struggle against death. We can’t actually defeat death, but there’s very good reasons not to surrender either. This idea is present in The Sundering but in a very strange form. Though they don’t realize it, the good guys in the story are serving the cause of death. Each Shaper has a “gift” they can give to the mortal races. Haomane’s, for example, was “thought”, given to humans and ellyon but not to fjelltrolls. Satoris’ gift was sexual pleasure and fertility. He gave his gift to humans, but Haomane didn’t allow him to give it to ellyon, and as a result humans reproduce and become ever more numerous while the ellyon diminish in numbers. To prevent the ellyon from being crowded out, Haomane demands that Satoris revoke his gift from humans. Satoris refuses, and this is the cause of the original falling out. After the sundering, Haomane’s Gandalf-analogue (not so subtly named Malthus) incites humans into massive wars against Satoris that seem genuinely intended to defeat him, but the carnage also pares back the excess human population. When another race, the Were, actually do surrender to Malthus, they are allowed to live but are forbidden to reproduce, apparently dooming them to extinction.

There is a case to be made, then, that the “bad guys” really are fighting against death in some way and that therefore they are correct to not surrender. But no one actually makes this case, not Satoris, Tanaros, or Lilias. Whenever the question of why keep fighting comes up, the answer always seems to be pride and spite. In any case, valorizing the fight against population control is an odd stance for a modern story to take. The real Malthus was wrong about his predictions of famine, but no one disagrees with his general observation that population can’t increase indefinitely. I say no one, but The Sundering seems to say that if Haomane had just allowed the ellyon to have Satoris’ gift, everything would have been fine. It also hints that the prophesied marriage of a human and ellyon will be a mechanism for finally allowing the ellyon access to Satoris’ power, and implies that this was probably Uru-Alat’s plan all along.

Once again, this all made more sense in Tolkien’s original. There, the conceit was that Middle-earth was in our past, and so we could take it for granted that nothing would halt the decline of the Elves, since there self-evidently aren’t many Elves, if any, left in our time. What the future holds for The Sundering‘s world is anyone’s guess. Malthusian collapse as ellyon and humans populations (or a single hybrid of both) grow without bound, or else the fantasy equivalent of demographic transition, I suppose.

I like thought-provoking stories even if I disagree with a position they seem to be arguing for, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend The Sundering. The story is too predictable, the world is too derivative, and the ideas those two weaknesses were intended to serve just aren’t coherent enough to justify them. I’m glad Carey took time away from her Kushiel books to try something different, but for me this one is in the category of interesting failure.

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