Upon first glance, The Sacred Pool by L. Warren Douglas, the first book in a trilogy entitled The Sorceress' Tale, seemed to be just another Celtic-based historical fantasy novel. The dust jacket intrigued me, but I began the story somewhat reluctantly, expecting a mediocre book, nothing really special. How wrong I was!
The Sacred Pool begins with the villagers of Citharista, a village in medieval Provence, in hot pursuit of Elen, a masc (a hedge witch of sorts). Her two daughters, Marie and Pierrette, have followed her into the forest, hoping to throw the villagers off her trail, but they come too late. Her neighbors and friends nearly upon her, Elen makes a mad dash for the fortress of her friend, the magician-scholar Anselm. She is not fast enough; nor is the one who hoped to save her. Just after she is murdered, Otho, Citharista's resident priest and Elen's former lover, arrives in time to prevent the mob from hunting down and murdering her two daughters as well.
Meanwhile, Marie and Pierrette have taken shelter in a nearby cave, where their mother's friend, the wood sprite Guihen, guards them until it is safe for them to leave. They return home to their father, Gilles, who stood idly by and watched as his wife was murdered. Anselm and the mysterious Starved John of the Bears bury her body, unbeknownst to Gilles and his daughters, in the grove Elen loved, beside the sacred pool.
The first hundred pages or so focus on Pierrette's childhood and early adolescence, which is spent disguised as a boy named Piers. A curious child, Pierrette experiments with her mother's magics -- until her father, Gilles, finds out. To keep her out of trouble, Otho teaches her to read, and her father takes her to the grove where he and Elen spent so much time together. There, on many occasions, she sees her dead mother, and the earth goddess Ma, who shows her the different paths that would come of a choice she must make, after which Pierrette journeys to Anselm's fortress to ask him to teach her magic.
Anselm does not teach Pierrette magic, but instead he teaches her geometry, the sciences, and some foreign languages. His fortress exists outside time, so no one notices when Pierrette goes for lessons every day. Eventually, Pierrette learns how to perform some magic, including how to part "the Veil of Years" (i.e. how to travel through time, though with severe limitations).
Following a great trauma (so integral to the plot that I can't describe it without giving away too much) Pierrette journeys around the countryside, traveling through the Veil of Years, practicing her newfound magic, and learning what she must learn in order to become a sorceress.
I can't say anything more without spoiling the story. The Sacred Pool is, certainly, Pierrette's story, a coming-of-age novel in the grand old tradition. It is a tale of spirituality and growth, love and desire, fear and ambition. It is the story of a young girl's journey to find herself, and, as all good stories are, of bad things happening to perfectly good people. For the most part, Mr. Douglas's writing style is quick and easy to read, but there are sections that one must re-read in order to grasp fully what he is trying to say, such as Otho's explanation of good and evil:
"Do you have two jars there, one empty and one full?" Marie nodded. The priest took them and decanted half the contents of the full one into the other.
"There . . . . This one has all the evil in the world, and this other all the goodness. . . . There is never more, nor less, but only this much. Now. . ." He poured a few drops of oil from the jar in his left hand into the other. "Now is there more evil in the world? Have I transmuted something good into something bad?" He poured some back, and hefted the two jars. "Ah -- now this one is heavier. Is there more good? Tell me, child -- if I poured all the oil into goodness' jar, would all the evil be banished? . . . Of course, they are only jars of oil. Would that the world were so simple."
This seemed, to me, a somewhat original definition of good and evil, a question that mankind has asked for millennia. Mr. Douglas manages to walk the thin line between speculation and preaching, not an easy feat at all! Religion and spirituality, especially when the issue is paganism versus Christianity, are difficult subjects to depict in a speculative fiction novel, mainly because they raise such feelings of anger, resentment, and righteous indignation in contemporary devotees of both religions. Douglas's conjecture is that there is no true good and evil; rather, there is a set definition of how much good and evil exists in this world. Thus, no one can be completely good or completely evil -- we all exist in shades of gray.
One of the major flaws in many speculative fiction novels on the market nowadays is the poor quality of their villains. It always makes me grind my teeth to read a novel in which the villain might as well be a character in a children's cartoon bragging, "Look at me, I'm evil! I'm so proud that I'm evil!" The villains of The Sacred Pool are refreshing because they want to do good, but cannot; their good intentions are twisted by their flaws. Although demon-possession plays a role in Douglas's novel, he doesn't use it as a deus ex machina to explain evil-doings.
Yet, what is one of The Sacred Pool's greatest strengths is also a weakness: there are no true villains that you love to hate. At most, you feel pity for them. I've always loved novels in which the villain is flawed, wants to do good, but believes that the ends justify the means -- and is so ruthless in the means that you really want the protagonist to kill him off. There is no such character in The Sacred Pool. The entire cast exists in various shades of gray. Does the story succeed without a "love-to-hate" villain? Read it, and decide for yourself.
The historical detail in The Sacred Pool is astounding. The details are exquisitely portrayed, and there are passages I read many times over to capture their beauty, such as the descriptions of the Dragon's Bones and the village of Citharista. Mr. Douglas has done extensive research into the world of the pagan/Christian confrontations around 800 A.D. In his Historic Notes at the end of the book, he gives a chronology, a note on the placement of geographical features pertinent to the story, and a word on the languages of ancient Provence (and nearby areas) and religion of the period. He also gives a four-page bibliography for The Sorceress' Tale. This man has done his research! However, there are times where the story gets bogged down in historical detail. I didn't fully understand the nature of Yan Oors, "Starved John of the Bears," until I reached the last part of the book. Then I had to go back and re-read here and there until I realized who and what he was. This happened in other parts, as well. Still, Douglas's exposition is well-written and well-timed, and I think that, for the most part, he's managed to avoid swamping the reader with unnecessary information.
This is a book I wholeheartedly recommend. The second book in the trilogy, The Veil of Years, will be coming from Baen in July 2001. Sample chapters of The Sacred Pool and The Veil of Years can be read on-line at Baen's Web site (go to July 2001 and click on the title), or at L. Warren Douglas's self-maintained Web site. His website has the advantage of having sample chapters of the last book in the trilogy, which will likely be released sometime in late 2001 or early 2002, although Baen hasn't announced anything officially as of this writing (April 2001).
The Sacred Pool is an entertaining novel that raises some interesting, difficult questions, all the while providing a wonderful experience for the reader. It's neither "brain candy" nor "heavy reading." It's the mesmerizing story of Pierrette, a precocious young girl who wants more than anything to become a sorceress, more powerful than both her mother and her teacher. At conflict with herself, Pierrette must make incredible sacrifices for her dream -- as must all of us who have dreams that are larger than life.
Heidi Elizabeth Smith has three main hobbies: reading, writing, and using her computer. This review was the product of all three. She hates writing bios.
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