Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey

Unless you’re a Tolkien fan, I don’t recommend going into Jacqueline Carey’s duology The Sundering unless you’re aware that she’s going to take the tropes we all know and love so much, and twist them on their heads. I can see what she’s doing. I was prepared for it. This book is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially not if they’ve read and enjoyed her other works which are a totally different breed of novel (lush, textured, sensual).

The premise is simple: Take the tropes of The Lord of the Rings, and write a story told from the losing side; subvert readers’ expectations. This is not happy epic nor is it a comfortable read, especially for those accustomed to fantasy where the good and evil are easy to identify. By the time I was finished with both books, I was rooting for those who’d traditionally be considered evil, and yet by equal measure I *felt* for those who saw themselves in the right. And oh, did I feel sorry for them for being so ideologically possessed. I suppose there’s a lesson to be had here.

All the standard tropes are present, but instead of mindless monsters, our orcs/fjel are portrayed as possessing sensitivity (and they make art!). The elves are stuffy, obsessed with things staying the same. The humans are…well… Humans do what it is they always do. The glimpse we do get of dwarves breaks the mould in terms of them being ore-digging smiths. Rather they are nature-loving, tree-hugging pacifists. And yes, there are dragons (Carey *gets* dragons). Mix this all together with the quest of the Bearer, who must carry the Water of Life that quenches the marrow fire that protects the only weapon that can kill gods, as well as adding one meddlesome wizard and a sorceress who gets tangled in the affairs, and you’ve got your plot.

There’s more to this story than merely good vs. bad. The heart of the tale investigates the notion that viewpoint matters, and once you ascribe justifiable motivation to any cause, it lends weight to the outcome. In this case, the meta story would be the war between stasis and dynamic change. And it’s an open-ended story that echoes Tolkien’s Last Alliance of Elves and Men, which unashamedly sets up the stage for what could have been a follow-up.

My feelings on this duology are complex. Yes, I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t recommend it to all fantasy readers, as the style Carey aims for here is closer to Tolkien’s, so if you don’t like Tolkien, just don’t go here – you may find the narrative dry and the characters unlikeable. Especially in terms of modern conventions, this feels like older, classical fantasy told in third person verging on omniscient. (Which incidentally is difficult to get right, but Carey manages this well.) But I can see what she’s done here. And I applaud her for being subversive, and would even offer her a GrimDark badge of honour for this work.


  1. I'll disagree slightly, Tanaros was mmensely likeable. Hell, I liked all three of the villainous captains. But otherwise, I wholeheartedly agree. These books are by far Carey's hardest reads for me, and it's because she emulates and subverts Tolkein so damn well. At least the trees didn't walk.

    1. Out of all the characters, Tanaros was one that I cheered for the most. Granted, his damnable honour in the end made me want to shake him, but it was all in character. Not quite a redemption arc, but if you consider how deplorable his actions were (murdering his wife) then it makes sense.