It was 1993. I was twelve years old, and venturing into the adult section at the now demolished National Library along Fort Canning. My parents didn’t bring me to the public library often – it was a rare treat when they did. They had deposited me there for a while, and I had but a little time to pick up some books to read. I can’t remember why that book caught my eye, perhaps someone had just returned it, and so it sat, beckoning to me, a small, innocuous paperback. I picked it up. And thus it was that I discovered Michelle Sagara, and her debut novel “Into the Dark Lands“.
Being twelve, I wasn’t picky about my book choices – most of my reading material came from my school library – these were mainly hardback copies of children’s fiction (I think there was no young adult section in those days). Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Christopher Pike, C.S. Lewis, plenty of fairy tales, the classics, and lots of other things I can’t remember. I also recall reading lots of encyclopedias and kiddy science activity books. Back home, what I could get my hands on were whatever popular fiction that lined my parent’s shelves. These comprised mainly of Sidney Sheldon novels – which I read as well, much to my mom’s chagrin. But like I said, I didn’t differentiate. Books were entertainment. If I found a book, I read it.
I plunged into my latest read, unsure of what I would be getting. At that time, I didn’t even think of it as Fantasy. All I knew was that it was the coming-of-age story of a young girl, a strong, brave warrior-healer who faces her enemy and falls in love. It was my first taste of a dark romance, it opened wider the door into other sub-genres of fantasy. Mostly, it moved me. I cared about Erin and Stefanos, and wanted to know that things turned out well for them at the end of it all, that despite the war between the Bright Heart and the Dark Heart, they would find a way to make things work. Then I got to the end of the book, a horrible cliffhanger, and found to my dismay that it was only the first book in a series. The next book would be out in 1993, it said. So began my search for an answer to their story. I never found the next book. And despite being a regular visitor to the ‘S’ section in my library visits since, I never ever found another book by Michelle Sagara.
Years passed. Amazon.com arrived. I found out that Michelle Sagara had married and changed her name to Michelle West. NLB online was launched, with their online catalog and book recommendation functions. “Into the Dark Lands” had gotten shelved into the library’s book depository, the only book by Michelle Sagara I could find in the library’s catalog. Then Acmabooks entered the local online bookstore scene. I purchased a couple of of Michelle West’s books from them. She was still a good writer. But I missed Erin. I tried to buy the rest of the series online, but the books were out of print. Unless I paid a hand and a foot to ship used copies all the way from USA, it seemed like I would never get to know how the tale ended
A couple more years passed. I found out that the series had been reprinted by Benbella books. These were not yet available in Singapore, so… I turned to the library for help. Over the years, I must have sent in request after repeated request for the librarians to bring in the series with their “Suggest a Book” function. Nothing happened. Every once in a while, I’d go online and check on the status on the books. Had the library brought them in? Were they in stock on Acmabooks? Yes, but never all 4 at the same time. Finally, in 2008, I decided to get the first 2 books from Acmabooks. I’d get to the remaining two later, when they came were in stock.
The books arrived. I remember looking at the cover with fresh eyes; they looked plain and dated to my adult eyes. As a child, I had never bothered much with covers, preferring to judge a book more by its back cover blurb. I picked up the first book with trepidation. It had been a long time. Would I feel as I did? I was no longer young and easy to impress. Would I be disappointed?
I was twenty-seven years old when I re-read “Into the Dark Lands”. This time, the tale didn’t flow as smoothly, the flaws of Sagara’s debut novel had manifested. And yet, I still loved the story, it moved me, despite the youth of her writing. Perhaps the ghost of its first kiss was still branded on my mind – I re-read the book in its shadow, searching for the ache I felt, the tremors of my heart that echoed Erin’s as she fell unwillingly, in love with the First of her enemy, and him with her. Star-crossed lovers make a good subject, and these two characters, were depicted strongly enough to make me care for them, care about what happened to them. And this time, I had the second book to satisfy me. Only – it ended too. Where were the final 2 books?
For the longest time, Erin’s ending eluded me. The books were always out of stock when I checked, even on Amazon. Would I never get to the end of the tale?
2010. I was at the library, and there it was – the last book in the Sundered Series “Chains of Darkness, Chains of Light”. It sat on the ‘new in’ shelf. Beckoning to me. I swooped in, confirmed that it was really the book I wanted. Tried to find the book that came before – and couldn’t. A search on the NLB catalog told me that it was still being processed. I put the book back. And started waiting.
December 2010. I’d finished Nanowrimo, and needed to read something badly, having gone sort of cold-turkey in November (with the exception of the fortunate distraction of “The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson, which I polished off in a weekend). Off I went, trawling the NLB catalog. And found that it was in. It was in! Both books of the series I had been seeking to end for years were on the shelves. That night, after work, I went straight to Bishan Library, scooped up the final two books, and began the end of my journey within the Sundered Lands.
16th December 2010.
I finished it. After a decade’s worth of searching, I had gotten the closure I needed, to the story I had been following for years and years. I had to re-read the first two books, it had been so long. Upon this third re-read, the flaws of Sagara were even more obvious. But she had a clear voice; quiet, contemplative, a voice I could appreciate. And the writing, uneven as it was, had heart. Even as the story slowed to a crawl in the third book, plagued by POV and plotting issues, I stumbled across passages that moved me, tucked amongst other, less delightful ones. I plodded through, not very impressed, and crossed my fingers that the last book would be better.
It was. The final book was not without problems, but it moved faster, and because it tightened its focus mostly to only a few characters – Erin, Stefanos, and Amalayna, so did my commitment for their plight. The ending wrapped things up satisfyingly enough for me. Was it a deus ex machina ending? I can’t decide, there was enough foreshadowing and character development to justify the actions of the main characters, but what of their god? There were some other loose ends, but the main question about the love story of Erin and Stefanos, the question about the war between light and dark, was answered. And that, is enough for me. It was after all, the question the first book ended on. The question to the answer I had been searching for, for the past ten years.
Truth be told, if I picked up the series now, without the buffer of childhood, I would not be as impressed. But my judgement will always be coloured by my first reading experience, and so this series continues to hold a special place in my heart, because Erin and Stefanos’ tragic love story reached out and touched me once. And reading their tale reminds me of the time when I was young, when my heart could soar and trill so easily, roused by mere words on a page. It reminds me of a more innocent time, a time I still believed in the simplicity of the world, the clarity of black and white, good and evil. If I had completed the series when I was younger, I might not have appreciated it in the same way I do today.
Such is the personal experience of reading – a book changes you in different ways, when you read it at different times in your life.