Book Review: Chaz Brenchley — Outremer series

I’ve been reviewing the individual books of the Outremer series as I finished each one, but the series could be considered as one long novel, and now I’d like to look at the series as a whole. A quick bit of background from when I asked Chaz about whether I should get the UK or US edition — the series was originally conceived as a quadrology, but part way through the UK publisher asked for it to be done as a trilogy, which led to the final volume being paced a bit differently to the original intention. When Ace bought the US rights, they chose to split the original three books into two volumes each, and issue the series as six books. Chaz took the chance to tidy up the third book of the trilogy, so apart from the splitting into two, there’s also a significant difference in the actual text. If you read the US edition, as I did, it’s worth bearing in mind that each pair of volumes is really a single book, and paced as such.

The Outremer series takes place in an alternate-Crusades setting, with a landscape and basic history based on our own, but where magic is real. This is a land where there is direct evidence of supernatural power; evidence that can be, and is, interpreted by people as divine approval for the actions they take.

Add that magic to human nature in a recently conquered land, and you get a range of behaviour, from those seeking to study and understand the mystery, to those who cannot tolerate the existence of any faith other than their own. For Outremer is a collection of small states carved out of another people’s territory some forty years earlier by an invading army; each individual state ruled by one of the senior people in that army, but all under the ultimate authority of a king who has withdrawn from public life. In theory there is a degree of official tolerance of the local people and their religion, but actual practice varies widely, as does tolerance of deviation from the most strict interpretation of the conqueror’s religion. The most open-minded of the states, the Folded Land, has removed itself entirely from normal space to protect itself from attack by the religious fanatics who call it heretic, and the King has done nothing to intervene on either side.

This, then is the setting — a land on the brink of war, at conflict with itself and with the surrounding Sharai tribes. But the series is very much character-driven, following a diverse group of characters and showing how they cope with conflicting needs and loyalties. Three core characters are the backbone of the plot, but there are several other major characters whose stories are woven in and out of the plot — between them they cover the diverse cultures of the setting.

As the series opens, one of the main characters has run head-first into a moral conflict. Marron has joined a military religious order out of a deep faith and idealism; but on the way to the Roc de Rancon, the great castle that is the order’s home and training centre, his group of recruits is led to massacre a village caught in heresy. Caught up in blood lust, he participates eagerly, but when the emotions whipped up by his group’s leader have drained away, he’s left disgusted and horrified by his own behaviour. Disillusioned and hurting, he tries to be a good trainee, but can no longer quite believe in what he’s doing. He finds a refuge of sorts when the Knight Ransomer Anton d’Escrivey takes him on as a squire, but still cannot altogether escape the dark side of the Ransomer order. Before the first book is done, he has to face a dreadful choice between evils. By the end of the second book, an innocent desire to protect life makes him the human host to a terrifying supernatural weapon, and his lack of control once again leads to slaughter. He refuses to kill again, but that resolve is sorely tested in the months ahead.

Julianne de Rance, daughter of the King’s Shadow, is both an independently minded young woman and a political playing piece, on her way to a political marriage to a man she’s never met. En route to Roc de Rancon, she picks up a new friend, and a new destiny. Julianne and Elisande meet a djinn on the road, and are given a new journey to make with a task to complete — one that proves a good deal more complicated than they first imagined.

Elisande has her own reasons for wanting to get into the Roc, but her new friendship with Julianne is real and solid. She wants to protect her country, but she also wants to help both Julianne and Marron, even though Julianne is the daughter of a potential enemy.

All three find themselves with reason to travel the same road to the Sharai lands, and along the way gradually piece together more information about the magical land of the djinn, and why the djinni race have taken an interest in them. But it’s a hard journey with sorrow along the way, and a three-cornered war is brewing. By the end of the series they have answers to most of their questions, if perhaps not always the answers that they wanted. While the ending isn’t as neatly tied up as many fantasy readers might like, I found it a satisfying one. There’s clearly more story to be told about the characters and what happened next, but there’s a resolution to the part of their tale that we’ve seen.

One of the things I particularly liked about the series is that things aren’t cut and dried, and in particular there is no easy way to label one side Good and another Evil. There is a clear moral message against fanaticism, but part of that message is that fanatics aren’t just found on the other side, and in the right circumstances most people can be caught up in blood lust. There are no cardboard characters here, but people shown to have their own reasons for behaving in the way that they do. Even the most fanatical of the characters is shown by the end to be capable of recognising where the true danger lies, rather than blindly continuing to fight those he sees as the enemies of his faith — *without* having a sudden conversion to seeing those enemies as fine people after all.

Another aspect is that the author doesn’t flinch from showing the real consequences of people’s actions. While there’s no gratuitous gore, there’s also no glossing over the horror of some of the things that happen when people enforce their power over others. Often there is no easy choice for one of the characters — whatever he or she does will have horrible results, and the choice is merely which is the lesser evil.

This is all part of a general process of building a world and characters that feel real. This is an excellent series for readers who enjoy good world-building and character-driven stories. What’s particularly nice is that it draws on an existing mythology that doesn’t get much attention from fantasy writers, with the magical creatures here being djinni and ifrit. And the djinni are shown as being essentially alien, if able to communicate with humans.

I thoroughly enjoyed this series. It’s well constructed, with an interesting story and excellent world-building and characterisation. And the prose is superb, with some wonderful use of language. A particular note for romance fans — while the series is primarily a fantasy, there are strong romance sub-plots, including polyamory and gay romances. It doesn’t end with HEAs all round, but I would recommend this series to fans of non-traditional cross-genre romance.

Chaz Brenchley’s website

UK edition at Amazon UK
The Tower of the King’s Daughter (Outremer) UK volume 1 of 3 at Amazon UK
Feast of the King’s Shadow (Outremer) 2/3 at Amazon UK
Hand of the King’s Evil (Outremer) 3/3 at Amazon UK

US edition at Amazon US
Outremer #1: The Devil in the Dust (Outremer, Book 1) Volume 1 of 6 at Amazon US
Tower of the King’s Daughter (Outremer, No. 2) Volume 2 of 6 at Amazon US
Outremer #3: A Dark Way To Glory (Outremer, 3) 3/6 at Amazon US
Outremer #4: Feast Of The King’s Shadow (Outremer, 4) 4/6 at Amazon US
Hand of the King’s Evil (Outremer Series, Book 5) 5/6 at Amazon US
Outremer #6: The End of All Roads (Outremer, 6) 6/6 at Amazon US


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