Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Nameless Day: Defeated!

A bit of background: a friend of mine, whose opinion I have high regard for, lent me a copy of The Nameless Day. Its premise sounded fascinating: a medieval monk, who was formerly a soldier, receives a vision that the world is crawling with demons, and only he can resume an ancient duty and send the demons back to hell. But are his visions really from Saint Michael, and are the demons really the enemy?

Oh joy, I thought! Colon-three kitten face! A medieval setting? A monk, formerly a soldier, as the main character? Battling demons? Where do I sign?

Maybe I should have read the reviews on Amazon first. Several people comment that they rarely abandon books before finishing them, but they had to make an exception for this one. Their main concern soon became my concern: namely, that the main character isn't likable. At all. Some of the reviews point out that the first book merely sets up the character, and that he improves as the series goes on. But who wants to read an entire book where the main character is an elitist misogynist?

The monk, Thomas Neville, is repulsed by the idea of people being able to choose their own position in life (Gasp! That goes against the hierarchy established by God!). He believes that all women are manipulative temptresses (Eve, apple, lust, bla bla bla). Plus, though Sara Douglass goes out of the way to repeatedly point out that Thomas used to be a soldier, still has soldierly inclinations and instincts, and is in pretty good shape, he never once lays the smack down on a demon. Not a single freaking one. Demons repeatedly show up to taunt him, warn him, and confuse him, but he never whips out a sword and starts wailing on one.

Now, allow me to improve on one of Douglass's scenes for a moment. To set the scene, Thomas has awoken in the middle of the night to find an enormous demon squatting on his chest, choking the life from him and taunting him for several pages about how he's going to fail his quest. We join Douglass at the end of the scene:

It blinked, and cocked its head, its horns catching a shimmer of moonlight.

Then it looked back at Thomas. "You think to lead the armies of righteousness against us, Thomas. You think to be God's General. Well, one day, one wicked black day, you will crucify righteousness for the sake of evil!"

Then the fingers still about Thomas's neck tightened to impossible cruelties, and Thomas blacked out somehow managed to find the strength to lift himself, just barely, and drag himself the agonizing distance to the nearest sleeping soldier. He reached out and took the soldier's nearby sword in his hand. Years of training and practice on the battlefield combined with his righteous anger and disgust, and he swung the sword in a wide arc and chopped the demon's head right the fuck off.

A single scene like that would have gone a long way in making me enjoy this book a lot more. That scene could easily have ended that way--it's not like the demon is an important character, and this way we get to see a little bit of payoff for all the angst and bigotry we've slogged through to get there. A scene like that would have gotten me through the next fifty pages easily.

In The Nameless Day, Sara Douglass delights in giving us pages of internal strife. Thomas Neville torments himself about the demons' plans to use a woman to lure him astray, and he resolves that the harlot will never win in her demonic plans! But what if she's as innocent as she says? Oh no! Agony and indecision! Then we get a chapter or so of plot development, followed by virtually the exact same introspective angst.

The only thing Sara Douglass likes as much as internal strife are sleeves. When a new character is introduced, you can bet your ass you're going to find out what his or her sleeves look like.

What she doesn't like is action. Even when the characters do get into fights, we get white-knuckle scenes like this:

Several of their bands attacked Thomas and his escort, but Philip's soldiers were good, and battle hardened, and managed to beat them back.

***Major spoiler warning***
That's not to say that the book had no redeeming value. Its historical setting was masterfully done: Douglass has clearly done her research, and the setting feels gritty and real. There is also one scene, quite well done, where The Black Prince is killed by an unnatural storm in France, with twisted demons gamboling about him, while Edward III, his father, dies in England with mummers dancing about. Then the demons turn to the survivors of The Black Prince's party and say the refrain to the mummers' song, even as the mummers do the same to the king's surviving sons at the party in England. Quite an effective, chilling scene, but hardly worth reading the rest of the book for.
***Spoiler over***

My main complaint with her writing style, aside from the typos that made it into the book, is Douglass's use of the word "Whatever" to begin sentences. She seems to use this as a synonym for "Regardless" or "In any case." It ends up sounding informal and out of place, and I can only see a bleached-blond Valley girl throwing out her palm and saying "What-eva!" (even though Douglass is Australian). It seems to happen more later in the book, which I take as an indication that her editor had gotten tired of changing it each time she used it.

It took me about three months to finish this novel. Three months to get through 529 paperback pages is pretty crappy progress. October was spent mostly putting off reading the book. It wasn't good enough to make me want to read it, but it wasn't bad enough for me to give up on it and start a new one, so I just didn't read for days on end. Then November was spent writing a novel, so I had little time for reading. December came around, and toward the end of the month I launched another concerted effort to finish the book. Then, the start of January, and victory.

I hope that this post doesn't end up sounding ungrateful to my friend who the recommended this book. Like I said earlier, it should have been right up my alley. It easily could have been. It just wasn't.

So, now that I have finished it and am moving on with my life, I would like to leave you with this image that, I think, most accurately sums up how I feel about having finished The Nameless Day.

1 comment:

Elizabeth E. Grey said...

well, i am sorry to hear you struggled so much. i think maybe a basic problem was a miscommunication- you were expecting an action story, where this is a story about a character with an action setting. sorry.
in any case, i absolutely agree that the reader hates the main character. i think that's the point, and frankly, it was one of the things i liked best about this series. brother thomas is misogynistic elitist rat bastard whom you spend most of the novel wanting to bitch-slap into next week. no question. but i found that refreshing, honestly. so much fantasy or sci. fi., even if it is well written, concerns such typical characters- the orphan with the heart of gold, the misunderstood prince(ss), the kindly old wizard, or whatever, that i found it to be a really nice change to read about a character who is such a colossal fucktard. whether or not i liked him, i thought it made the story a lot more interesting.
i also think this may tie into your problems with the fight scenes (or lack thereof). no, thomas doesn't beat the crap out of the demons- because he is so totally incapacitated by having his head wedged up his ass. soldier or no, trained royal fighter or not, he is so totally self-absorbed and ruled by his fear that he can't even react in the most basic ways he knows. so no, he doesn't fight demons. because he's a selfish coward. i think it's in character.
that said, i think the second book is the strongest of the series. the third is also good, but has the same problem as the return of the king- it ends about six different times over a hundred pages or so.
nonetheless, i still think this book is worth reading. i still consider it to be one of my favorite series for the way in which is skewers religion, nobility, and the general romanticization of the middle ages with equal vigor. and thomas, rat bastard though he may be, is a great character.