The Nameless Day is the first volume in Sara Douglass’s trilogy, The Crucible. While the author lists The Crucible as her favourite of all her series, many readers had mixed feelings about The Nameless Day upon its initial publication. Most of their concerns regarded the vastly different feel of this novel when compared to her previous works (such as the popular Axis Trilogy), and the unconventional choice of protagonist. Nevertheless, in my opinion, having read all three books in the series, I would still recommend The Nameless Day and consider it to be a highly worthwhile read. While it may not suit the tastes of all readers, The Crucible is probably the best historical fantasy series I have ever read, and one of the most intricately plotted and daring fantasy novels in general.
History and fantasy
The story takes place in an alternate fourteenth century Europe, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War and a great schism in the Roman Catholic church which would eventually see three popes simultaneously claim office. Former nobleman turned Dominican friar Thomas Neville is visited by the Archangel Michael who warns him that demons run rife throughout Europe and have integrated themselves into every level of society. If they are to be stopped, Thomas must find a mysterious casket, thirty years missing, and use its contents to cast the demon spawn back into the fiery pit of hell. This task, however, is more easily said than done. The demons have had decades to prepare for his arrival and do not intend to go down without a fight. Furthermore, Thomas is haunted by visions of what he suspects is a demon-woman sent for the sole purpose of tempting him from his promise. Worst of all, the concepts of good and evil may not be as clear-cut as he believes.
Essentially, Douglass interposes another, more secret battle between the rival factions of the angels and the demons, amidst and underlying the various other struggles of a particularly tumultuous period of European history. She does this with spectacular style, involving intricate period detail with fantasy elements, and hinting towards larger themes to be explored in the later books. Such include the respective roles of church, state and the individual, as well as faith and responsibility for one’s fellow man. She also explores and builds upon the origins of what would eventually become humanism. Though she does alter some dates (for example making certain individuals appear earlier or later than in historical records) and The Nameless Day is foremost a work of fantasy fiction, Douglass’s historical scholarship is generally quite thorough and demonstrates an excellent knowledge of and passion for her chosen era.
The main protagonist, Thomas Neville, is self-righteous, misogynistic, small-minded and hypocritical. Although this may make him unrelatable to some readers, it makes him a more realistic character given the historical period. After all, the likelihood of finding a man of Thomas’s position with particularly modern or liberal views would have to be relatively uncommon in the fourteenth century. Furthermore, Thomas’s character provides many opportunities for development and, judging by the aforementioned criticism, one must conclude that Douglass has succeeded in creating a character that readers desperately want to see change as a person.
Those familiar with medieval history may recognise a myriad of notable historical figures amongst the supporting cast. These include John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), Charles VII, Joan of Arc, Richard II, Geoffrey Chaucer and many others. Each character, whether historically based or entirely fictional, has their own distinct personality, a great achievement for a novel encompassing so many individuals. The ‘good guys’ are never wholly good, while the ‘bad guys’ are rarely purely evil. Alliances are ever-changing and everyone has their own agenda and hides their own secrets.
A little bit of everything (done well!)
Once again, Douglass showcases her admirable talent for seamlessly blending elements of different genres into a cohesive whole. The Nameless Day incorporates fantasy, history and romance, while also containing some particularly brutal and gory moments that would put most writers of modern horror to shame. Certain sections, especially at the beginning of the novel, are very dark and reminiscent of early Gothic works such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, full of sinister clergy and malevolent secrets.
Why should you read this book?
By the end of the novel, much is still unclear and many questions remain to be resolved in the following books. However, those who can bear the suspense will be greatly rewarded by this daring and thought-provoking series and the many shocking and unexpected developments it encompasses. All in all, The Nameless Day is definitely worth a read for any fantasy fan who isn’t particularly averse to historical fiction and would like to try something a little more daring and challenging than just another Lord of the Rings clone. However, it does contain substantial violence and various depictions of religious figures behaving badly, which may be unpalatable to some individuals. Hence, you may be wise to refrain from lending it to, for instance, your fainthearted and devoutly Catholic grandmother.