Despite what the church claimed and the people believed, this was still a Kingdom born of younger sons, the land-hungry and the dispossessed. Thus begins one of the more fascinating books I’ve read in a while, Chaz Brenchley’s The Devil in the Dust.
The story of “Devil” is somewhat spare: Marron, a young brother in the Order of the Knights Ransomer, has journeyed with his troop to the Roq de Rançon, a vast fortress in the desert, built around an older and very mysterious tower. On their journey, under the command of Fra’ Piet, they turned aside to destroy a village of heretics, an event that preys on Marron’s mind as he recalls his own part in the atrocity and tries to reconcile it with his belief in honor and justice; Marron has doubts, not in his faith, but in some of the means by which that faith effects its purposes. Marron also meets Anton d’Escrivey, a Knight in the Order, who takes Marron for his squire. Also arrived at the Roq is Julianne de Rance, daughter of the King’s Shadow, en route to meet her betrothed and be married to a man whose people believe that women should be veiled and secluded, which Julianne finds outrageous. On her way, Julianne and her escort have encountered a young woman traveling disguised as a boy, Elisande, whose past is mysterious, and a djinni, who, through Julianne’s carelessness, now has her in its debt. This volume in the series traces Marron’s growing disillusion with the Order – or at least, with Fra’ Piet’s version of piety – and his growing relationship with Anton, whose past is as murky as anyone’s in this story. There is an attack on the Roq by the desert tribes, the Sharai, for the first time united under one charismatic leader, which is repulsed thanks to a timely warning by Marron. There are also references to a mysterious land of heretics that has “folded” itself out of contact with the rest of Outremer, which the Knights have sworn to destroy.
What is remarkable about this book is a kind of freshness that is composed of a number of elements. It is almost axiomatic that certain flavors of heroic fantasy must include desert dwellers, to give the author a chance to work with dryness and the exotic – I call it the “orientalizing” school of fantasy. Brenchley has taken this one step further: Outremer calls very strongly to mind the Holy Land at the time of the Crusades and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, from the setting – the Roq sits in the middle of parched, arid, unforgiving territory – to the “natives” – the significance of blue stones in their worship has much to do with Arab symbols – to the feudal structure of the society and the military Order, to the names that are largely French, or could be. The characters are, to a certain extent, extreme – Fra’ Piet is the epitome of the unforgiving religious fanatic, while Anton is a prototype for the arbitrary, arrogant noble who may be more than a little mad. It’s worth noting that none of the characters really grab our sympathies, except perhaps for Julianne – even Marron is a little dense and somewhat spineless – and yet in an odd way, they all do, even Jemel of the Sharai, as we see the beginnings of his own fanaticism in his grief over the death of his lover, Jazra, in the attack on the Roq. It may just be that Brenchley’s prose is hypnotic. Even in a book that essentially sets the stage for the rest of the series, this beautiful, clear, strong sinuous language just grabs the reader and won’t let go.
“Devil” is one of the more original and creative offerings that I have run across in the fantasy field. This is the first volume of six. By contemporary standards, it’s a slim little book – only 260 pages — but after reading this, I am convinced Brenchley is someone to watch.