The Devil’s Diadem, the latest offering by popular Australian author and historian Sara Douglass, is a stand-alone historical fantasy set in mid-twelfth century England. Douglass has described The Devil’s Diadem as “everything she always wanted to put in a fantasy novel but never did”. She has also stated that it could quite possibly be her last ever book. If this is indeed the case, many fans will be eager to know whether it is a worthy farewell from such a great writer. The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding yes.
The Devil’s Diadem tells the story of Maeb Langtofte, a young woman of minor nobility who is sent to serve in the household of the powerful Earl of Pengraic after the death of her father. Soon after settling into her new duties, it becomes evident to Maeb that strange and ungodly forces are at work both within and without the Pengraic household. She hears rumour of a demonic pestilence sweeping across Europe and witnesses the presence of devilish imps. As the plague decimates the English population, the country succumbs to chaos and terror. Furthermore, the origins and spread of the disease appear far from natural; it seems to be searching for something. The world as Maeb knows it is falling to pieces and even those closest to her hold deadly secrets. In the face of such terror Maeb must determine who to trust and unravel the secrets of the past, and she must do it before everything and everyone she cares about are lost forever.
A world in itself
This alternate medieval England is inexorably brought to life through vivid description and effortless prose. One can almost smell the aromas wafting from the kitchens and feel the biting chill of the long winter nights. The setting abounds in intricate historical details, displaying Douglass’s detailed knowledge of the era. Likewise, she seamlessly works real historical events, such as the great fires and the catastrophe on the London bridge, into the context of the story, often giving them supernatural origins.
As well as the predominate medieval Christianity, Douglass also incorporates some pagan influenced mythology of her own creation, involving magical paths known as falloways and an intriguing, almost druidic, race known as the Old People. The descriptions of the falloways, the Old People, and their strange primal magic are undeniably mysterious, beautiful and captivating. I frequently found myself wishing that I, too, could wander down a falloway to a realm populated by an ancient people living in harmony with nature.
As the book is narrated in the first person, the reader primarily watches events unfold through the eyes of the protagonist, Maeb. At certain points in the story, however, we experience the viewpoints of different individuals, each with their own unique narrative voice and preconceptions. Each of Douglass’s characters are believable and human: they have flaws, experience misunderstandings and make mistakes. Their relations are complex, their interactions believable and I found them easy to relate to. Maeb herself is frank, honest and likable. She tries to make the best out of the cards fate has dealt her and stick to her own principles. Despite possessing some wit, she is unschooled in the ways of the world. Although the concept of the naïve young maiden is not new to fantasy, it meshes perfectly with Maeb’s personality as well as the historical period, and Douglass’s superb characterization prevents it from feeling too cliché.
Not for the faint of heart
The horror elements throughout the novel are especially well realized. The demons are repulsive and mephistophelian, while the descriptions of the plague are legitimately horrifying and often disturbing. Those who prefer their demonic pestilences complete with excessive fungal growth and spontaneous combustion need look no further. Even the most resilient readers may well feel a shiver run down their spine or find themselves checking in the mirror for the dreaded, telltale yellow rash.
As a stand-alone novel, The Devil’s Diadem is by necessity less drawn out and complex than some of Douglass’s other novels (for instance the Wayfarer Redemption series or her excellent historical fantasy trilogy, The Crucible). While this may disappoint some readers hoping for another epic saga, possibly encompassing two trilogies and a prequel for good measure, this novel is a wonderfully engrossing and vibrant self-contained story that deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.
Why should you read this book?
Overall, The Devil’s Diadem is thoroughly enjoyable saga of love, loss, political maneuverings, friendship and betrayal that successfully combines believable characters, historical detail and romance with aspects of myth and horror. I found it to be well plotted, intelligent and enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys good, character driven fantasy. Additionally, if you have ever read and loved any of Douglass’s work in the past, as I have, perhaps we owe it to her to at least try the one book she “always wanted to write”.