The Nameless Day - Sara Douglass
HarperCollins Australia, May 2000, hc, 520pp, $34.95. Cover by Shaun Tan.
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
Sara Douglass' ninth novel and first in a new trilogy, The Nameless Day, is a slight departure from her highly successful Tencendor series, setting aside the more obvious tropes of fantasy, and concentrating instead on Douglass' background as a historian.
The eponymous "Nameless Day" is, according to the ancient pagan calendar of Europe, the one day of the year when the world of mankind and the enigmatic world of the spirits touch (the 23 December). It is the day of the year when Wynkyn de Worde, the mysterious friar charged with keeping the doors to hell closed dies of the Black Death without having chosen a successor, leaving demons able to take human shape free to roam through Medieval Europe. Twenty years later Thomas Neville, a British noble who has renounced his secular position to do penance for his sins, is visited by the Archangel Michael who informs him that he is to take part in a mighty battle between good and evil, and that to do so he must recover the book used by de Worde to close the doors to hell once more. This sends Neville on a mission across 14th Century Europe, from Rome to Dresden, then to Paris, and ultimately London, during which he encounters everyone from English, French and Spanish kings, to Joan of Arc. It is a journey that tests his faith and risks his soul.
The way medieval Europeans understood the world is starkly different from how we understand it today. People believed that they lived in a world of evil incarnate, where demons and angels walked the streets, and where God and Satan were in preparation for the final battle. Douglass carefully couches her story in terms of this worldview, which effectively blurs the boundaries between history and fantasy, making it uncertain as to whether her characters are really encountering angels and demons, or simply believe that they are.
This medieval worldview clashes with modern sensibilities, something that Douglass exploits. Neville, the central character of the novel, is thoroughly unlikeable by modern standards, considering women to be irredeemably tainted by original sin, and the poor to be beneath contempt. This is evidenced by the Archangel Michael informing him that his rape of a woman was of no importance, and by Thomas' astounded revulsion at the idea of common people overturning the social order ordained by God and seeking to improve their own lot in life. At one point Douglass shows us the family of a talented woodcarver who has been required to work on a cathedral in Paris for a year, all unpaid and leaving his family to depend on the charity of his Guild to survive the honour. It's an effective moment that clarifies just how different the world was.
Reminiscent of a rich blend of the historical fantasies of Mary Stewart and Guy Gavriel Kay, The Nameless Day is a strong opening to what should be an interesting and rewarding series.
|©1999 Jonathan Strahan.
This review originally appeared in Locus.