Fantasy readers are lucky to have David B. Coe, because he possesses enough talent to succeed in any genre of writing, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Outlanders. This book also contains an important theme, which made it a comforting read as a venomous election cycle came to an end.
The tricky part of writing genre fiction is making the same old plots seem fresh and new. Readers are quick to toss aside any book that seems too familiar. Then, of course, we’ll throw the next one away for not being familiar enough. We fantasy readers are a demanding lot, but, fortunately, Coe knows what he’s doing.
The Outlanders succeeds the outstanding novel The Children of Amarid, and in this sequel the author faces the challenge of writing about a modern world that exists alongside a magical one. Coe is very good at world-building, and this story gives fantasy readers two worlds for the price of one. But the real heart of the tale is found in its people, and, as Coe knows, that is the secret to making any story a good one.
The novel opens with a simple scene: a woman is looking at a piece of paper. Sonel, the leader of a magical order, has received correspondence from the neighboring, modernized society–the first formal communication between their peoples. The contents of the letter are bland, boilerplate, but Sonel is struck by the paper, which she barely has words to describe:
The paper itself was a message. Immaculately white, its edges were as straight
as sunbeams, its corners so sharp they seemed capable of drawing blood…Yet, despite the distance it had traveled, it came rolled in a precise, narrow cylinder and tied with a shining, golden ribbon of silk. Indeed, it looked so elegant, so unnatural in its perfection, that Sonel had known before she read the terse response to her own letter of several months before, what the flawless, ornate lettering would say. She pictured her own note, embarrassed at the thought of how it must have appeared to its recipients. She had used the best parchment available to her, had employed the
most skilled scribe in Amarid, and had tied her letter with the fine, blue satin
used for all of the Order’s communications. But compared with this missive
from Lon-Ser, her image of that first letter seemed to wither and fade. In her
memory the parchment looked dingy and rough-edged, the lettering coarse and
uneven, the blue satin crude and inadequate. The letter from Lon-Ser’s leaders
made a mockery of her effort.
Hoping to stop a pending invasion, a mage named Orris ventures into this modernized land, bringing his mystical gift to people who no longer believe in magic. Orris isn’t exactly a diplomat, to say the least, and his struggles to understand an advanced society are evenly matched by his lack of charm. His presence as a mage is seen as a threat by a local ruler, and Orris quickly finds himself hunted by the most dangerous men in the land while looking for a way to save his home from war.
The story of two cultures clashing as their inevitable collision draws near is captivating, but the real story is how this conflict affects the characters back home. Unable to agree on exactly how to deal with this new threat, the mages, sworn to protect their lands, are bitterly divided. You can’t help but feel frustrated as our protagonists’ noble efforts are swallowed up in bureaucracy and prejudice. I wanted to scream at the characters and tell them to just get up and walk away, washing their hands of the nasty affair.
Fortunately, the characters in this book are better people than that. No amount of bullying or mockery will turn our hero, Baden, from his goal of keeping the order of mages together and unified. Baden refuses to demonize his political opponents or return their mockery, and he also insists that the discovery of their technologically advanced neighbors should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat. Baden fights the good fight to the end, always steadfast in his belief that these different people, if they will work together, can move forward to something better.
And that’s a lesson we could all stand to learn.
Check out David. B. Coe’s site to read more about The Outlanders, and the anticipated new edit he’s releasing for us. It’s wonderful when a writer has the opportunity to revisit an established work and give it a fresh look.