Exile, the second book in Rowena Cory Daniells’s OUTCAST CHRONICLES, simultaneously raises the stakes and deepens the narrative that began in the first installment, Besieged. It’s a good bit of work, and readers will be pleased to find Daniells addressing some of the issues that were problematic in Beseiged while at the same time keeping to the familiar sense of suspense and breakneck speed that made the first novel so gripping.
When last we left the T’en, they had finally given some sense to the book’s title and gotten themselves besieged by the armies of King Charald. Starting the book going right into that problem for her characters to work on seems to give Daniells energy coming right out of the gate, and the text clips along at a swift pace. The long-awaited direct comparison between the T’en and the True-Men finally emerges as well, as we at last get to see the two cultures in direct dealings with one another. The result? Well, despite their Machiavellian maneuverings throughout the last book, the T’en are apparently somewhat naïve in comparison to the brutal Charald. They’re also conspicuously cleverer with their stratagems, however much Daniells likes to discuss the tactical genius of the King. Fortunately, all of this feels quite reasonable in the world Daniells has constructed: the T’en are devious, but are used to working through their plans in a highly structured (and strictured) society. Charald has enjoyed rule of force for decades, and will sink to any depths to get what he wants, but like any predator he is used to displays of power ahead of guile. To put it bluntly, the war between the T’en and the True-Men is one between politicians and generals, respectively.
If I seem to be focusing on the intellectual side of the war, it is only because for the most part it’s the only war that takes place. Despite the dramatic finale of Besieged, the long-awaited conflict between the two sides is surprisingly bloodless. Main characters regularly receive shocking casualty reports to sigh over, certainly, but scenes of actual combat are something of an endangered species in Exile: for the most part they’re skipped entirely, and even when a brawl crops up later on in the narrative, Daniells clearly finds the exercise rather tedious and tries to get through it as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t call this a negative, as the OUTCAST CHRONICLES are clearly political thriller material over heroic fantasy (one gets the sense that Imoshen would give a delicate shudder if someone even mentioned Sword and Sorcery), but particularly given the wealth of build-up that was the first book, some readers may find the pay-offs a little lackluster (at one point, the entire future of the T’en depends on a military strike and a kidnapping, the sort of more typical fantasy quest that in another book would be fodder for an entire plot. Daniells completely skips over all proceedings up until the moment of the mission’s resolution). That said, I don’t think the dissatisfaction should linger for long, as the political maneuverings on both sides are fascinating enough to make up for some deficiencies in the physical action.
Much of Exile is actually about negotiation, both in the obvious sense between the True-Men and the T’en and in the more subtle sense in the T’en themselves, forced to negotiate their way of life with pragmatic necessity when confronted with a new and bleaker situation. This is the story Daniells seems really interested in telling, and the best parts of Exile come out of the displacement and uncertainty experienced by a people who have their world abruptly taken from them. The commonality of their experience has allowed Daniells to tie together various characters in unexpected ways, and many of the supporting or secondary figures gain far more nuance and dimension in this installment. With a stronger cast united by a common problem, Daniells is able to convey a real sense of connection to the T’en people in a way that transcends the first installment and moves the series to a new level of poignancy. Exile, putting it simply, constitutes the maturation of the OUTCAST CHRONICLES.
Daniells’s plotting — already good, if a little unfocused, in Besieged — is strong and firmly directed here, and as I’ve said, her characterization is very well done. Some characters (cough Imoshen cough) do occasionally miss “too good to be true” by closer margins than I might like, but all of them clear the hurdle in the end through their individual flaws and concerns.
Overall, Exile is tightly made and well-crafted political fantasy, and an improvement over its predecessor. The final novel in the series, Sanctuary, has a high mark to meet.