Rhys MacDuffy, even after seven years of banishment and memories of a cruel, unfair trial, can’t shake the ties between him and his brother Sean, his former Clan’s Seer. So when Sean is captured by the pretender Lord Adam, against his better judgment Rhys sets out to free his brother. He insists he’s the Mountain Baron, a hardened magnate overseeing his fellow outcasts – but he accepts the mission to save his “former” brother, doesn’t he?
If Katherine Kurtz and J. Ardian Lee teamed up to write a Terry Brooks-style fantasy novel, the result would be something like C.M. Banschbach’s debut installment of The Dragon Keep Chronicles, Oath of the Outcast. The book’s evocative cover art, with the cloaked silhouette of a man staring across the unforgiving rocks of a sloping mountainside at a mist-draped fortress, and its terse plot description delivers every promise it makes – a case where you should definitely judge a book by its cover. Like Terry Brooks, Banschbach has a Tolkienesque craft at detailed worldbuilding without clogging the on-the-ground prose with any more detail than is necessary to get you swept up into the motivations of the characters and the world in which they live. But the world is not the Anglo-Saxon-style Germanic culture of Middle Earth or Shannara’s Four Lands; instead it draws its inspiration from the Scottish tradition of fantasy – not historical as with Ardian Lee, but instead creating for the reader a rich medieval Scottish culture that intertwines itself with intimate ramifications in the lives of the characters. This, in fact, is why I invoke Katherine Kurtz – as the mistress of politically themed high fantasy, Kurtz came to mind as I began to get glimpses of the political engines that drive the lives of characters in Banschbach’s world.
Of course, I make no pretension to identifying sources for Banschbach’s inspirations – she is every sentence and every paragraph her own writer. The rugged, almost Hemingwayesque prose runs lean, giving only the exposition necessary to help the reader appreciate the gravity of the drama, without seeming vague or elusive. The prose is, like the cover art, relentlessly concrete and tersely in keeping with the emotional clamps choking at the protagonist’s voice (along with the literal scar that makes his voice raspy and deep). Impressively, too, the narrative provokes difficult philosophical, political, existential and even religious questions without an iota of baggy or pontifical prose.
It was in fact my abiding love for Scottish themed fantasy – from Joanna Baillie’s Ghost of Fadon to J. Ardian Lee’s historical fantasy to Highlander – that motivated my desire to read the book. And that William Wallace sense of stubborn, futile, heroically frustrating resistance to the powers around him marks the personality of Rhys MacDuffy deeply. And that desire was fully satisfied by the book to the point where I actually felt a sickening sense of anxiety where I realized I would have to wait a year before I could know how things would play out.
It’s that suck-you-in-and-won’t-let-go force of the plot, relentless action entwined around urgently real characters and a beautifully crafted world, that reminds me of Terry Brooks, but that’s where the comparison stops. Well, there are druids in Alsaya, the world of Oath of the Outcast, but these are not Terry’s benevolent (if sometimes slightly Machiavellian) undogmatic priests of learning and harmony. No, these are druids with the smell of the old sacrificial blood about them – like the religion of Ungit in Til We Have Faces if it was practiced by N.I.C.E. from That Hideous Strength. These druids are more like Brona and his Skullbearers, but in their cruel, cutthroat, and downright creepy fanaticism, Banschbach’s druids remain unsettlingly human in their evil (whatever Deronis, their twisted ‘god,’ may be) every step of the way.
As a scholar of consolation literature (insert requisite reference to Boethius here), I can’t help but mention the delicious literary device at work in Outcast: a son banished by his Clan goes to rescue his brother imprisoned by a maliciously ambitious politician. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy uses Boethius’s actual imprisonment at the hands of a tyrannical king as a philosophical metaphor for the imprisonment of the soul’s inappropriate attachment to worldly goods. She uses, likewise, the metaphor of banishment to explain the idea of the true home: that there is an upright and fitting state of mind that will provide the truly wise man with the consolation of home regardless of where he is. Insofar as one has been “banished” from that true home of the mind, one can always return to it, and so break the soul free from its imprisonment to those worldly goods. Rhys “The Mountain Baron” MacDuffy is likewise faced with the question of whether he has a true home, and his internalized status as outcast leaves his decision to rescue his brother shot through with an existential angst that is as legitimate as it is painful. Meanwhile, the poetic contrast of Sean as a Seer who is unlimited by Time in his ability to See with his imprisonment provides a bitter irony in the face of the wicked druids’ desire to twist Sean’s powers to their use. And the Seer’s abilities lend a Boethian flavor of potential fatalism to the narrative: if it’s possible for a Seer to look ahead in time, then how much can the characters involved really change the outcome of anything?
Oath of the Outcast comes highly recommended, and I guarantee that when you get to the final page, you’ll be hungry for next year’s sequel, Blood of the Seer. So, as I wrote in my title, I suggest that you stop having not read Oath of the Outcast forthwith.