I was pleasantly surprised by The Outlands.
The book has movement, action, and fast pacing. The writing rarely slows down, offering a new layer or concept page by page. A labyrinthine world unfolds, depicting the ins and outs of thievery. As orphans in Dios, our main characters are subservient to an abominable caste system, yoked by societal limitations. I was put in mind of Mad Max, Fist of the North Star, and Golden Age science fiction. However, our hero is more of an Everyman, an underdog, which renders the setting all the more ominous. Under the harsh ruler, the supreme leader, the higher ups espouse the philosophy of “harmony in sameness,” which sets the stage for rich world building. By removing diversity they preserve order and eliminate division. Of course, this only benefits the lucky few.
All the while, the narration is swift, relaying flashbacks and drawing from pertinent clues organically within the environment. We are treated to a tour of slums and teeming markets, gang activity and chase scenes, typically ornamented with baroque architecture and Third World accoutrements. The author mixes high technology within his feudal system. Thankfully, brief touches of humor enliven the dystopian aura that results from the strenuous trials of our protagonist within the pervasive aura of despair.
Subtle commentary is present in satirical allusions to current real world situations and problems, but the allusions avoid a mocking tone, employing a worst case scenario texture to the whole story. Government hypocrisy runs rampant, starving, desperate masses eke out an inadequate existence. It has been done before, but since the focus in so close to the main character’s perspective, I rarely grew bored of the lush description or the dialogue, which works overtime as world building. Life is a game of survival for these folks, and it is clear every step of the way that they get by with grit and resilience. I was reminded of the Lightbringer series in that respect.
Surrounding the despotic city is the uninhabitable Outlands. Of course the characters are motivated by relatable dreams of freedom toward this distant glimmer of difference, freedom or death. The dialogue conveys their individual personality, comradeship, and position within the system. By the end, I was most immersed by the ceaseless flow of action, while the subtext contemplated the resonance of loss, the value of hope, the consequences of struggle and the preponderance of apocalyptic history, the resulting fallout from mass conflict and moral death which imbued the literary terra firma.
With colorful characters and a page-turning plot, the necessary Underworld, the search for purpose and meaning, the reader will encounter familiar tropes, but realize this is only the beginning of a larger work. The pursuit of skepticism, questioning the world order, and all the rest serves to establish the tone, rebellious in spirit, for the intriguing set up. On its surface it communicates a constant sense of danger and suspense, with plenty of power and heart to sustain a grand narrative.