Oath in Ink: A Review of The Outlaw and the Upstart King, by Rod Duncan

Some of the best novel series understand that, in order to keep a fictional world interesting, they need to change or play with the genre in some way.  A novel is never just science-fiction, it can be a mystery set in a science-fiction universe.  Or the first novel can be hard science-fiction, where the second brings fantasy elements into the mix.  With The Outlaw and the Upstart King, Rod Duncan’s follow up to last year’s steampunk adventure The Queen of all Crows, he takes readers away from his sci-fi Victorian setting and to somewhere new.  The setting of this second novel resembles a more medieval, violent Arthurian wilderness with none of the first novel’s trappings of setting.

In the world of The Map of Unknown Things, the Gas-Lit Empire rules most of the known world.  From Europe to the United States, their influence can be felt across nearly every aspect of life.  Technology is strictly controlled by the International Patent Office and anything that could potentially threaten the peace of the world is destroyed without hesitation.  Patent officers function as both engineers and spies, travelling the world to both protect it and the empire’s power.  In the previous novel, Elizabeth Barnabus, an expert in disguises and acts, travelled undercover into the Atlantic Ocean looking for a weapon capable of destroying zeppelins.  She discovered it in the hands of the Sargassan nation, a matriarchal pirate nation free from any other nation.  Founded by women who experienced misogynist violence first-hand, Elizabeth was torn between helping these people and serving the patent office.  In the end, amidst a battle between the Sargassans and the Empire’s Trading Company, Elizabeth escaped with her friends to what they thought was America.

In Duncan’s fictional world, there is no united Canada.  Instead, there is a vast expanse of almost untouched wilderness, much resembling the Canada of the 1600’s.  The Canada of this story is mostly untouched by European colonization, but still contains hunters and trappers and the occasional larger settlement.  But there is no consolidated government and no major cities.  The Outlaw and the Upstart King takes place entirely in Newfoundland, far away from the steampunk trappings of the Gas-Lit Empire.  Newfoundland is very much a medieval territory, founded by people fleeing the authoritarianism of the Gas-Lit Empire.  Ruled by a loose coalition of warlord Patrons, Newfoundland is violently isolationist.  Any outsiders who have the misfortune to wash up on their shores are enslaved by the first people to find them.  There is no single government and no laws set laws except for oaths, tattooed into a person’s skin.  If you make a promise or hold a debt, you are tattooed with the words binding you.  To break your oath means to lose that body part.  Newfoundland is a brutal land, and this is where Elizabeth finds herself stranded.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King is not only Elizabeth’s story.  While partially told from her third-person point-of-view, the novel actually opens with Elias No-Thumbs, the other POV character of this story.  And this is very much his story.  Elias used to be a high-ranking member of the Blood, a direct relation to one of the Patron’s who rules Newfoundland.  Years prior, he was banished as an outlaw and had his thumbs severed during an annual meeting of all Patrons.  The reasons are never fully explained and are partially political.  He was accused of cheating after humiliating too many rivals in gambling, and in flashbacks is shown to act higher than everyone else.  He was banished from Newfoundland for eighteen months and given eighteen hours to escape with his life.  Against all odds and belief, Elias did manage to escape.  The mystery of his escape and return are used as a weapon, as the ability to come and go from Newfoundland undetected would be a powerful tool and threat to the Patrons.  He returns just before the start of the novel a broken man, mentally crippled from his time away and now serving mysterious masters whose eyes have turned to this harsh land.

While the story is entirely told from the third-person POV of Elizabeth and Elias, there is another major character who factors into their stories and controls much of the narrative.  Jago is a younger Patron and serves as the main antagonist of the story, although Elias and Elizabeth spend the majority of the novel in his company, one as his conspirator and one as his captive.  Jago is an upstart Patron, with aspirations to be more.  He is violent and brutal, severely beating Elias and nearly executing Elizabeth because he mistakenly believed she was trying to steal food.  Despite this, he is both intelligent and extremely disciplined.  Although Elizabeth spends most of her time as his captive, and they both maintain the façade that she is his sexual conquest, he upholds a vow of celibacy.  Like all other vows, Jago believes in the sacredness of the vow, and promised himself to never break the vow until he became a real ruler.  He is approached by Elias to be used as a tool by his masters, but Jago becomes a willing conspirator and partner in their plan to upend Newfoundland’s tradition.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King is not without its fair share of criticisms, however, most of them revolving around Elizabeth Barnabus herself.  Although she is ostensibly the main character of this series, and roughly half of the novel is told from her perspective, she does not get to do all that much.  The plot seems to move around her while she is carried by the current.  Elias and Jago each make decisions which affect and move the plot, but Elizabeth continually bides her time and watches as these men act.  She allies herself with Elias so she can escape Newfoundland, but is never brought into the conspiracy as a partner.  While her actions do show her expertise in disguises and acting undercover, and she does find several avenues to escape and gather information, she is a passive character.  Relegated to a supporting character in her own trilogy, The Outlaw and the Upstart King is very much Elias’ story, although he is a fascinating character in his own right.  The first novel in this series had a similar problem with Elizabeth, but the issue feels more pronounced here as this is the second novel, a place where most authors improve on everything done in the first novel.

Overall, The Outlaw and the Upstart King is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, despite some of the missteps concerning Elizabeth.  No story is perfect and every author can falter in one or two departments.  Duncan’s version of Newfoundland, Elias, and Jago serve as a fascinating study of characters in a fringe-society.  Newfoundland has its own version of civilization, brutal to the outside, but fiercely protected by all who live within it.  With only one novel left in the series, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man, Elizabeth Barnabus’ story is almost at a close.  With her last novel, maybe Elizabeth will get her chance to shine.

The Outlaw and the Upstart King can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: Recursion, by Blake Crouch

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