Chaz Brenchley,
The Devil in the Dust
(The First Book of Outremer)

(Ace, 1998; 2003)

The first in a six-part series (that was originally a trilogy in its first printing), Devil in the Dust introduces the Kingdom of Outremer and its Order of the Knights Ransomer, as well as the order of warrior-monks who hold an ancient fortress captured decades earlier from the surrounding desert tribes of Sharai. Decades in which the Sharai have nursed their wounds and now are growing impatient to reclaim the land and fortress that was once theirs. The Sharai believe one of the fortress' towers holds a secret that could turn the tides of battle and reshape the politics of Outremer and the surrounding lands.

The author weaves a tale of kingdoms and tribes at war both outwardly and within itself. It's one kingdom in name, but four in truth for the factions that lurk behind the public oaths of loyalty. It is still a young kingdom bent on delivering the Truth to the world. For Outremer has Religion and the light of Religion must spread to all the barbaric tribes of the world, so its people vow to purge the heresy that is whispered among outlying lands, heresy that is rampant in the breakaway province of Surayon and its Princip, formerly one of the king's great nobles and a general during Outremer's founding wars. Surayons dare to question the traditional strict interpretation of Outremer's religion and, knowing it to be heresy, have hidden the province by means unknown -- hence its other name, the Folded Land, folded within the shadows of the mountains.

Into this rides Julianne, Daughter of the King's Shadow, borne upon a palanquin to the fortress, Roq de Rancon, to meet her husband-to-be for political marriage. Upon the road she befriends Elisande, a commoner with uncommon knowledge of the surrounding Sharai tribes. Rudel, a jongleur of no small skill, asks questions of the fortress and the secrets it holds to a whispered few. In Roq de Rancon, Marron, a young apprentice monk squired to the Knights Ransomer captain Sieur Anton d'Escrivey, is fraught with inner turmoil because the Truth preached to him and his heart's voice tell him different things. Sieur Anton, whose past is whispered rumor, takes Marron to train in the ways of the Knights.

Welcome to the land of Outremer, a candle amid the dark barbaric lands -- or so it believes. Here is a story that brought to mind the Crusades of our own world and the things people will do when they believe they hold the Truth. The author's command of prose at times shines with the beauty of poetry without being enamored of it at the expense of clarity. The characters grow as the story progresses, though some are more likeable than others. I found more depth here than much that fills the fantasy shelves of bookstores and libraries. There are few battle scenes but the book focuses more on the consquences of battles and the beliefs that fuel them.

To anyone looking for something a cut above the usual Tolkien-inspired clones on the market, Devil in the Dust is a fine introduction to an author I hope to be reading more from soon.

- Rambles
written by Dana Fletcher
published 20 December 2003

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