Darkwitch Rising: Book Three of the Troy Game by Sara Douglass

And if you can grow,” he said, “why not me?”
— Weyland Orr, Darkwitch Rising

The ability for humans to change and grow over a lifetime is undeniable. Reflecting on our lives, our choices reveal more about our personalities and personas that we might realize. Decisions lead to unforeseen consequences, for better or worse, and sometimes we’re aware enough of the reasons for our particular choices that we learn from mistakes or errors in judgment. Imagine, though, if we could experience our lives several times; if we could pinpoint exact reasons for our bad choices in order to better understand them and perhaps make positive amends with better, more solid decisions the second time (or third) go round.

Such possibilities frame Sara Douglass’s internationally successful Troy Game books. In the series, with its third installment titled Darkwitch Rising released earlier this year, Douglass’s characters are reincarnated several times and during key moments in history in order to explore these ideas of basing life decisions on past failures or successes. As the final installment of the series is not too far away, the transformations in Darkwitch are among its most surprising.

The central character of Cornelia, for instance, has experienced two lifetimes prior to Darkwitch Rising. In this book, she’s reborn as Noah, a young woman struggling to find her own self-awareness due to an unfortunate relationship with the Trojan Brutus (beginning in Hades’ Daughter). In Hades Daughter, Cornelia is entirely unknowing of herself. She relies on Brutus’s opinions of her and is frustratingly preoccupied with these opinions, ignoring her own or anyone else’s. Beyond this reaction, however is the knowledge that he both instigates and is involved in the events that shape her and, eventually, her lives. It is not surprising then that Cornelia craves from Brutus the kind of self-worth she believes she does not possess. When she’s reborn as Noah, she becomes a powerful, confident woman, independent of Brutus, with strength of spirit and will all her own. What starts out as a glimmer of this persona in God’s Concubine (through the Caela character’s embracing of her goddess role) not until this new books that Noah at last begins to make her own choices and judgments.

Not only does Noah emerge as a being capable of shaping her own destiny, she is the catalyst for another character’s transformation, that of Weyland Orr. Through Weyland (reborn from Asterion), Douglass addresses the question of whether a being of darkness can be transformed into one of light. A typically evil being without a conscience, the character is a major player in the overall Troy Game story, however, throughout much of it, he remains something of an unknown, an outsider who is not part of the main cast. In Darkwitch Rising, we start to know him a little better as he reveals himself as more than simply the incarnation of malevolence. The new Weyland character’s history is one of vulnerability through love and betrayal. This revelation of his past lives gives weight to support his gradual transformation from outright monster to something more human.

Like Weyland, Genvissa, reborn here as Jane, also changes after her various incarnations, though her transformation is much more extensive. In each incarnation, Genvissa/Jane has demonstrated she’s capable of love, albeit selfishly. In Darkwitch, Jane retains some Genvissa traits, such as her outward coolness and lack of compassion that reinforce the credibility of change. Coel is another character who is propelled into a higher state here. However, his transformation is unsurprising, as he has retained the beauty of his being throughout his lifetimes. Brutus, however, isn’t so lucky — he’s had three lifetimes through three books to shift from his unreliable self into someone more decent and tolerable. Douglass’s insight into our abilities to change is highlighted through Jane and Noah and Weyland, but also through unchanging Brutus. Just because we see our mistakes, doesn’t mean we learn from them. As Brutus attempts to move forward, he slips into old patterns He moves forward and just as you think he has changed, he falls back into his old reflecting the very real complexities of human patterning and conditioning.

Growth and change in the series, too, isn’t limited to characters alone. It’s expanded to include place and time, as story settings alter and divide. The land itself evolves, shaped by human progress, and the timing of each life allows Douglass to incorporate historical fact with fantasy. Douglass has set The Troy Game alongside the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London. She inspires the reader to consider alternative reasons for these events, too — something she is so successful at due to some intense and clear research into the events that she fills with her ever-evolving characters.

This interweaving of fact and fiction is as convincing here as it was in her previous Crucible trilogy. Douglass’ writing contains a neutrality that resists forcing the readers into believing in the good or evil of her characters. There is no demand to like or dislike Noah or Jane, or even Brutus. Reader response is predicated solely on their own reactions to the characters’ exploits and decisions. Again, this is genuine reflection on real life — we learn about others through actions alone, bringing our experiences and judgments with us. Without Douglass hand-holding as we take her journey, the reader is challenged by their own stereotypes and other considerations about these characters making it more fascinating, more real, and genuinely captivating as the series heads to its conclusion.