Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells is the first book in the Outcast Chronicles, which is being published around now (Solaris likes to release trilogies over three months). It’s set in the same universe as her Last T’en trilogy (which is out of print and difficult to find) but in that world’s distant past. You definitely don’t need to have read The Last T’en first (I certainly haven’t, what with being unable to get a hold of it). A copy of Besieged was given to me by the author for review.
I absolutely loved Daniells’s previous (and completely unrelated) trilogy, King Rolen’s Kin. The Outcast Chronicles (judging by the first book, anyway) is quite different in the way the story is told. Where KRK followed a few characters closely over a relatively short period of time, Besieged has a much larger cast of point of view characters and spans a much longer period of time — about 25 years. I felt it was as much the story of kingdoms/their equivalents and ideas as it was the story of the individual characters. They all play important parts, but the real story is in the overall tapestry, not each thread.
Of course, spanning 25 years means there need to be some time jumps and I was fascinated by the way Daniells managed them. Among other things (such as just jumping forward a handful of years when nothing happened), all the literal journeys are skipped. Given how much the travelling from A to B journey is a staple of fantasy, it was interesting to see them skipped. Of course, there was no reason not to skip them (the interesting things all happened after people got wherever they were going), but I found it unusual enough to warrant a mention.
The societies in this world were fascinating. There are the T’en who have magic powers and who live in a very structured society. Female T’en have stronger magic than males do and so their society is mostly controlled by women and men and women live segregated lives. Men are forced to give up their pure blood children (which might result from a couple consisting of a half T’en half human and a full T’en) to the women, who raise them and then return the boy-children when they come of age. Many of the men fear and resent the women for the power the wield over their lives.
Half-breeds, if they’re lucky, live with full-blooded T’en. They have no magic of their own but can sense it. They also look different (like T’en they have six fingers or toes on each limb) and copper-coloured hair. They are accepted as sort of servants in T’en society.
Then there are the ordinary humans who are old fashioned in their attitudes towards women and fear anything to do with magic. Occasionally a genetic throwback causes a half-breed to be born to two human parents and then the child is lucky if it’s given to the T’en and the mother is lucky if she isn’t killed.
The different power dynamics, especially the gendered ones, are in stark contrast between humans and T’en. But at the same time, there’s not that much difference in how the male T’en view women to the humans, they just can’t express it properly. Honestly, it’s an interesting read for the gender politics alone, but there is much more to the story than just that.
Like the characters! Although there was a large cast, I didn’t have any trouble keeping them straight in my mind. Even the few longish “fantasy” names used were distinct enough to avoid confusing. Each character was well drawn and realistic. Because there were time jumps, we got to see very clearly how the characters changed over several years, which added to their depth. In real life people do change, sometimes unpredictably, sometimes only to become more who they were always going to be.
My favourite at the very start was Vittoryxe but that quickly changed as her intended path unfolded. Not that I now hate her as a character, but she’s not a very nice person. Very few of the characters are particularly “nice” people, really, thanks to the societies they’re born into.
My favourite character was Sorn. Born the king’s unacknowledged half-breed son, he is taken away by the former high priest, Oskane, to be raised by the church in the hopes of one day using him as a spy against the T’en. I liked Sorn because he does what he needs to to survive even as his perception of what surviving means, and what price is too high, changes as he matures. I’d say he’s the character that grows the most from teenager to man (although he book starts with his birth) by the end of book and I really enjoyed his journey and his ability to make the best of things.
I also enjoyed Oskane’s character, partly because we have his as a viewpoint character and as seen through Sorn’s eyes. What I found particularly amusing is there’s one scene where Oskane and someone else are talking about how half-breeds always end up turning on their human masters, no matter now well they are treated, and siding with the T’en. They’re completely oblivious to the fact that not killing or maiming them is a) different to treating them well and b) doesn’t make up for the rest of society hating them. So there’s a bit of racial commentary thrown into Besieged also.
And then there’s Imoshen, who is a T’en born to a male brotherhood and kept secret from the sisterhood she was supposed to be surrendered to. The brotherhood’s plans were to use her to gain power. Unsurprisingly (because nothing is easy) it backfires. Imoshen is practically impossible to dislike as a character. There was many a moment when I thought she was going to do something silly, but every time she manages to make the sensible choice based on what she knows. It seems like she’ll be quite prominent in the next book, Exile, and I definitely look forward to reading more about her, especially since she only came into her own in the second half of Besieged.
I said before I started reading that I suspected this would be a book that would leave me pining for the sequel and I was right. While it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, it definitely leaves much to be resolved.
I highly recommend this book to lovers of high/epic fantasy. If you like vast scales, lots of characters and intrigue, pick up Besieged.
4.5 / 5 stars