Sanctuary by Rowena Cory Daniells
In this final installment of Rowena Cory Daniells’ THE OUTCAST CHRONICLES, the focus shifts from the conflict between the humans (Mieren) and the elf-like T’en to the clash between the different factions of T’en as they float across the ocean toward the titular sanctuary. Fortunately, the sense of pacing and deeper characterization from Exile, the previous novel, remains intact here, and as the T’en and Malaunje always dominated the cast of this series, it’s tough to miss the Mieren once they vanish from the proceedings. It’s more of the same material that was quite enjoyable in the last book, although the overall resolution of various plot threads leaves a bit to be desired.
If Exile, the book which preceded Sanctuary, was about cultural conflict and upheaval and the book which preceded that, Besieged, was about stagnation, then this final novel is concerned with adaptation. The major focus of most of the series has generally been how broken the T’en culture really is, and what they’re going to have to do to fix it. Some steps were made in that direction during Exile, but in a time of war with the necessity of abandoning the physical manifestation of the old ways, a bit of change was expectable purely from necessity. In Sanctuary, Daniells gives us the inevitable aftermath, as the T’en – stuck on ships together without Mieren to worry about – generally grope their way toward a decision on whether relapsing into their old ways or moving ahead with the new direction would be the wiser course.
This being the T’en, the debate is naturally carried out by means of a lot of political maneuvering and power-hungry machinations. There is a subplot going on concurrently in which Sorne single-handedly saves the Mieren kingdom and rescues a boatload of children from certain demise (all with remarkable economy of page space), but this is the sort of bombastic, blink-and-it’s-gone adventuring we’ve come to expect from Sorne at this point, and the Mieren material in particular really just feels like Daniells is tying up loose ends. There’s a big-bad who’s angling for the throne, and Sorne joins forces with Queen Smarter-Than-She-Looks to stop him. And they do, rapidly, with practically no roadblocks or twists. Having secured the safety of the homeland he might have been heir to (as well as the heart of the queen, naturally), Sorne accomplishes his long-threatened messianic sacrifice and departs the kingdom forever to save his people.
While I did find the preceding battle sequences rather perfunctory, the actual moment of departure is well-handled and appropriately emotional. The extended Sorne and the Lost Boys episode that follows, however, is a little baffling after Daniells’ clear efforts to wrap up outlying plot threads. The only real point appears to be to keep Sorne out of the main storyline for as long as possible, and one wonders if this couldn’t have been accomplished more easily by simply complicating the Mieren wrap-up a little.
Meanwhile, Imoshen is still trying to wrangle together the various elements of the T’en society into a cohesive force. Imoshen appears as Sorne’s counterpart as usual, doing for the T’en what he accomplishes for the Mieren (albeit with less manipulative cunning and more Mary Poppins-style practical perfection in every way).
Sanctuary contains what is possibly the largest cast of characters in the OUTCAST CHRONICLES thus far, and Daniells continues and even enhances the heightened level of characterization she achieved during the last installment, making each figure feel distinct and purposeful. If Sanctuary has a single major positive point, aside from the sheer readability of the series in general, then it is undoubtedly the juggling act with all of these point-of-view characters and the way in which Daniells awakens the reader’s interest for practically each and every one of them (despite the fact that some of their storylines are, on reflection, a little superfluous).
Daniells makes good efforts with her imagery here as well, particularly during the two fight scenes at sea. Yes, you read that correctly. There are fight scenes in the OUTCAST CHRONICLES, and they’re actually fairly compelling. Well, granted, Daniells still has no taste for the individual hand-to-hand, and clearly avoids dwelling on the personal reality of combat as seen by a soldier, but she more or less makes up for it with some very good work in reaction and overarching sensation. It even makes a degree of sense, given that this is, despite the breadth of the cast, still essentially Imoshen’s story, and Imoshen is nothing if not the conservative feminine ideal, all maternal instinct and cooing emotionality. Her view of war is less concerned with the conflict itself than with the immediate aftermath, what she will have to do to control her people and express her sympathies in such a way as to maintain good relations.
Sanctuary does have a problem, however, and it’s a problem that has haunted the series from the get-go. Daniells has always been fairly good at giving the impression that she knows where she’s going, but impressions aside it’s sometimes been unclear if she actually does or if she’s simply very adept at making it up as she goes. If all the sudden twists and character introductions were headed somewhere in particular, it would at this point have had to have been a hugely convoluted finale.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that isn’t the case. Sanctuary has a climax and an ending, but neither of them wrap things up in a way that justifies everything that has come before. The climax works as a recognition of how far the T’en have come, but after all of this agonizing and brouhaha, it seems fairly tame by comparison. A group that in the old days would have leapt at the chance to destroy another group doesn’t do it now… as by doing so they would essentially be making life miserable for themselves and all their brethren. Not being murderous lunatics was obviously the right choice, both ethically and pragmatically. Making that choice, however, broke with a minor, unstated tradition of T’en culture and thus qualified as the first tentative step toward a brighter future. After war, bloodshed, failed coups, desperate missions, the fall of numerous kingdoms, and a terrifying exodus, a few of the T’en are capable of overlooking a petty rivalry in the interest of the survival of their entire race. Um…yay?
It’s probably a realistic climax, but this has not exactly been a series that feels terribly grounded and realistic. It’s been more about emotion and introspection, and I suppose I expected something a little more poignant to take away from it all. That may not be the case for all readers, but I suspect a good few will wonder whether this is really the finale or just another episode in Days of Our (T’en) Lives. I think I’ve made the point that this series is something like an ongoing soap opera before, and if the close to the trilogy leaves us with anything, it’s the sensation that the drama is going to keep right on chugging. Most plot threads don’t get any lasting resolution, and the ending that follows the climax is laughably brief and simple. There’s little sense that all of the events that have taken place have gotten us much of anywhere, or that whatever small changes we have observed couldn’t be reversed by a few well-timed misfortunes. Perhaps Daniells’s point is the well-worn chestnut about the journey versus the destination, but speaking personally I did want a reason to have made this journey. I wanted a point behind all of the ideas raised (and then, in some cases, simply abandoned).
So while Daniells’s writing in Sanctuary is arguably her best of the series, and while many of the events and characters were well-crafted, I’m rating the third installment a little lower than the second. There are some series in which one is forced to forgive some apparent oddities of plot and characterization along the way on the basis of viewing the body of work as a whole. THE OUTCAST CHRONICLES is not one of these. It ended pretty much the same way it began: little in the way of structure, but instead just an uninterrupted stream of events, apparently leading nowhere in particular. It’s a fun little ride, sure, and if a ride is all you’re looking for, the series will not disappoint. If, however, you’re coming into this last novel looking for a pay-off, you’re probably unlikely to be completely satisfied.
Well, you rated it pretty highly, but I’ll think I’ll pass on the series. Thanks for the review, Tim; a good analysis on the pros and cons of the work.