The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan (Review)

Map of Unknown Things #2

Fantasy, Steampunk, Alt-History

Angry Robot; January 8, 2019

371 pages (PB)

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was somewhat divided on my intro to Elizabeth Barnabus after coming late to the party in The Queen of All Crows, Book 1 of the Map of Unknown Things but #4 of her combined journey.

I joined the adventures of Elizabeth Barnabus late—reading the Queen of All Crows last year without making my way through the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire trilogy first. I’m guessing that this was an important factor in my divided opinion of the book; it felt like there were some inside jokes I wasn’t privy to, some extensive backstory I was missing out on, so many elements that just weren’t explained properly or fully. And yet, without reading the Gas-Lit trilogy first, how could I say for sure? Maybe these things weren’t a side-effect of my skipping straight to the Map of Unknown Things, maybe the Queen of All Crows was just underwhelming and poorly explained.

I already had a copy of The Outlaw and the Upstart King upon finishing Book #1, but it took me a little to get to it. Truth was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue the series. I found Queen of All Crows a bit of a slog: exciting bits, suspenseful bits, interspersed with long, uninviting text between. I’m happy to report that I had no such issue with Book #2.

Last we saw Elizabeth Barnabus, she and her two friends had boarded a skiff and fled the battle before them, making course instead for the sunny shores of Nova Scotia. And yet, not all went according to plan. The Outlaw and the Upstart King begins shortly after Queen of All Crows leaves off, but instead of Nova Scotia, it find Elizabeth in Newfoundland, a tavern maid with apparent slave-markings. And yet the story doesn’t begin with her.

Elias was once of the Blood—family of one of the ruling class in Newfoundland. He wanted for nothing, he answered to no one, he sat near in line to the Protector’s chair, not outside the realm of possibility that he’d one day rule his clan. And yet, life did not go his way. Cast out for cheating at cards—something Elias swore he didn’t do—he had his thumbs chopped off and found himself disowned, landless, and wanted by every man on the isle. Blood are respected for being rulers, yet feared and hated in equal measure as well. When one is cast out, it’s basically a death sentence, with any man, woman or child eligible to collect the bounty should they take the outlaw first.

And yet, somehow Elias escaped Newfoundland, a feat no other could pull off. For a notorious isolationist land like Newfoundland, his feat was not only unique, it’s worth its weight it gold. For if he could escape, maybe someone could get in the same way, bringing weapons, food or men—anything to break the uneasy truce between the various Protectors, giving one of them the upper hand. Such a thing could even make that man King. King of Newfoundland. So, yes—Elias’s secret is worth much, and he knows it. For what Elias wants above all else is vengeance—upon the men that falsely accused him, the men that cast him out, those that took his thumbs, cast him out and stole his life away. But he only has the one card, and he must wait to play it.

Enter the Upstart Patron Jago, born into a long line of fishermen and laborers, somehow he has risen to the rank of Patron, though in little but name. Oh, he HAS power—enough to keep the commonfolk in line, enough to keep the other clans at bay—but the title means little to his compeers. He would do anything for more power and fame. Anything for a shot at his one true dream: King of Newfoundland. Anything. Even consorting with Elias No-Thumbs.

And then there’s Elizabeth Barnabus. Stranded on Newfoundland. Taken as a slave-apparent by the locals. Forced to work in a tavern. Awaiting her opportunity to escape the unescapable isle—an opportunity she may’ve just lucked into.

With all the pieces in place, three desperate plays are made, each with their own aim. But not everyone can get what they want—this game has but one winner. And which one shall it be?

⚙ ⚙

I really enjoyed the Outlaw and the Upstart King, in all the ways I didn’t the first book. While I felt that the Queen of All Crows borrowed heavily upon the trilogy that came before, OatUK barely referenced the previous book at all, making it all but possible that the previous book hadn’t existed, at least early on. While it may not sound like it, this made for a more immersive experience: as I was able to really get into the story without having to constantly relate back to the previous book for clues. Now there are some points later on that ties the story in to what happened before, but they are few and far between. If anything, OatUK feels like a brand new, episodic adventure—y’know, one that tells a concentrated, complete story while also managing to further the overarching plot in the end. It really feels like your favorite TV show; a contained, satisfying adventure that moves the season’s storyline along while also managing to tell a completely separate story at the same time.

In QoAC, Elizabeth Barnabus shouldered the entire story. While it’s certainly something she could pull off (I assume she did it for most of the first trilogy, right?), I found that her story was often at odds with the main plot of the book. Not just that they didn’t align, but that they often competed for focus. It’s one thing to have two stories playing off one another in a way that somehow tells both better, but a completely different thing to have two stories butt heads continually, distracting the reader from what’s going on. I never connected well with either story, and so the overarching plot of the first book largely felt hollow to me. In OatUK, Elizabeth shares the load with Elias. And while Elias probably gets more screen time than her, their stories meld together quite nicely in a way those in the previous entry never did. For much of the text, Elias’s journey is Elizabeth’s and vice-versa. Their paths are aligned. Their destinies are… right.

The world-building I felt even improved on that of the previous book. Newfoundland is a new place with a new feel, completely unseen from anything that was learned in the Gas-Lit trilogy—but then so was QoAC. But while QoAC takes place mostly on ships or the open ocean, OatUK is entirely on land. The island of Newfoundland provides an excellent setting for this adventure, one that Duncan has redesigned from the ground up to fit the story he tells. I’ve never actually been to Newfoundland IRL, but I doubt it’s anything like this. Well, maybe the tides and landforms and whatnot.

The greatest issue I had was with the characters. In Queen of All Crows we got to know Elizabeth and Julia and Tinker better over the course of the book. While I felt like a lot of detail was absent from the original trilogy—especially fleshing out Elizabeth—it’s true a fair amount of time went in to getting to know our main cast. The various villains, maybe-villains, part-time-villains, and occasional allies never got much backstory. They all felt fairly uninspired, grey, lacking next to the main crew. I felt like OatUK did a better job in humanizing the would-be villains; they felt more real, more substantial, and I better connected with them. And of course Elias is well fleshed-out, most of his backstory being key to the current matters at hand.

And yet, it wasn’t a complete success. Any of his previous life that wasn’t directly relevant to the story was skipped over. I was left quite a few times with questions about his previous life—questions that would never be answered. More so, we don’t deal with Elizabeth’s past anywhere near as much as we did before. In QoAC, honestly I felt her past was skipped over a fair amount, just assuming we’d read the original trilogy. In OatUK, her past is barely referenced at all. I realize that since it IS the 2nd in a trilogy, that Duncan would assume that we’d read the previous installment, and would likely leave a lot of that detail out. But he doesn’t provide us any further detail that’s absent from the first book either. In QoAC, it seemed that her backstory was lightly touched on. In OatUK, it’s all but ignored. Likewise, Tinker and Julia don’t appear as anywhere near the characters they were in Book #1. While Tinker does appear in the text occasionally, he’s nowhere near as dynamic and amazing as the boy we saw before. Julia, on the other hand, is barely even mentioned, spending most the the book off-screen.

TL;DR

The Outlaw and the Upstart King succeeded in virtually every way I felt Queen of All Crows failed. The introduction of Elias as a lead definitely helped. Where Elizabeth was alone in leading the first tale, her and Elias come together in the second to tell the story in tandem, which works quite nicely. While both characters have their own agendas, for a good chunk of the time they happen to align, keeping the reader’s eyes ahead, instead of attempting to focus on two, very different plots. The Queen of All Crows felt like just a progression of the original trilogy, but the sequel tells a contained and complete story that—while it required no real knowledge of any of the previous stories—still managed to further the overarching plot of the Map of Unknown Things. Meanwhile, the world-building continues to improve. The isle of Newfoundland provides a lovely backdrop for the plot—which Duncan has masterfully rebuilt in this alternate history to suit his story. The only issue with the story is in its characters. While Elias and the Newfoundlanders (Newfoundlandians?) fleshed out quite well, neither Elizabeth nor her friends came across as well as they did in the last book. It’s as if in trying to tell this new story better, the author forgot to keep developing his existing characters to match.

All in all, highly recommended! An amazing piece by Rod Duncan—even more than I ever could of hoped after being disappointed with Book #1. The Outlaw and the Upstart King provides a lovely cover as well—complements of the talented Amazing15 group (who only knew of 14 entities more amazing than they). The Map of Unknown Things concludes with The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man, out earlier this week, January 14, 2020, which promises to be the final episode in Elizabeth Barnabus’s journey.

One thought on “The Outlaw and the Upstart King – by Rod Duncan (Review)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s