Where do I begin in reviewing arguably one of my all time favourite fantasy books? Perhaps the best way to do it is to provide some context. I first read Battleaxe when I was 14 in 1996. I distinctly remember walking into the bookstore and browsing over the shelves in search of something to read. After initially finding nothing of interest I went to leave, feeling disappointed and frustrated. As I turned my eyes fell upon a copy of Battleaxe that was tucked neatly on the shelves below my eye level. The cover wasn't eye-catching, but the premise sounded fascinating. On a whim I decided to give it a go, and I haven't looked back since.
Sara Douglass was the author who cemented my love of fantasy. I devoured each of her releases as they came, year after year. I adored the magical and unique worlds she took me too in those books, and the fact the she was an Australian author reinforced my love for her work. I used to keep up to date on her news via her website, where she dispensed wisdom and advice to all those who came seeking guidance. I even had the pleasure of meeting her once at an event, where her warmth and keen intellect shone through. Suffice to say I was devastated when I heard the news that she was sick with cancer. Like in all things Sara approached this setback with determination and humour, and she kept writing and posting on her website about her garden or cats until she got really sick. A few months later I heard the news that she had passed away, and I cried. I was not a close friend or family member, and I had only met her once. But I felt like I knew her, and I was heartbroken. Sara had that gift. She touched everyone who read her books, and we all felt her passing like the loss of a dear friend.
This 20th Anniversary edition of Battleaxe holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. Firstly, it celebrates the impact that Sara has had on fantasy and speculative fiction in this country. Sara was one of the first fantasy authors to write a bestseller in this country, and her books continued to be bestsellers year after year. A rare feat for any writer, let alone a fantasy fiction writer. Secondly it acknowledges the influence Sara has had over the industry here in Australia. Many of us (writers, publishers and fans alike) still look to her as the role model for Australian fantasy, and her books still continue to have influence despite her passing a number of years ago. We all owe her a debt that can be never repaid. To think it all started with just a small plastic axe she discovered in her garden one day. I only wish she could still see the happiness she brought into this world.
And Battleaxe itself? Many people might argue that it has become dated, but I would disagree. Battleaxe still to this very day retains its wonderful magic that I first experienced back in 1996. It is a powerful tale of fate, love, betrayal, religion and redemption. Sara was a trailblazer, and in Battleaxe she unleashed a wonderful ensemble of themes, characters and ideas. Axis, Rivkah, Borneheld, and Faraday all still entice and frustrate at the same time, and Sara was one of the first writers I read where powerful and strong women were the norm. The world of Battleaxe is still unique and richly layered, and the lives and magic of the Icarii and the Skraelings are simply stunning. I can't think of another book of the top of my head where such unique magical races have been depicted. Battleaxe is also still an immersive, meaty and thoughtful book. Arguably an allegory of the medieval world, Sara (a medieval historian before she turned to writing) brilliantly unpacks the role of the religion and the harm it brings to people and the natural world throughout the text. And boy, her gift with language still remains unchallenged. Reading Battleaxe is like slurping at a wonderfully flavoured soup on a cold and rainy night. Sara had a way with words that was simply beautiful to read, and in Battleaxe this is highlighted to full effect. The action sequences, twists and turns, and plot are all still top notch and cracking, and I still rate the assault on the Gorkenfort by the Skraelings as one of the best I have ever read. And don't get me started on the betrayals! The story still retains its impact twenty years later. As writer and friend Karen Brooks writes in the introduction to this edition, Battleaxe is a searing insight into humanity and history through the lens of fantasy fiction.
I love this book, but I am always sad when I finish it, knowing that I will never read a new release by Sara again. But I always go back and reread it year after year, no matter what. That is the power of Sara Douglass, and of Battleaxe. It is a magical and superb tale filled with love, violence, and betrayal. It was her first book, but it is also arguably one of her best. It is a must read for all fantasy fans, and it warms my heart to see a new generation will now get an opportunity to experience what I did many years ago with this rerelease.
5 out of 5 stars.