The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (Spoilers)

outlaw and upstart king

Every time I think Rod Duncan’s written his best book, he writes another one and proves me utterly wrong.

Elizabeth Barnabus, her newly-married best friend Julia, and the orphan boy Tinker, having escaped a battle between the Company (of the Gas-Lit Empire) and the women of Freedom Island in the middle of the Sargasso Sea, have washed up on the shores of what they think is north America, only to discover it’s Newfoundland, and they’re about to be made slaves, according to Newfoundland Law (such as it is).


What unfolds is an account of how Elizabeth desperately tries to find a way to get the three of them to freedom, sometimes aided, and sometimes obstructed, by Elias No Thumbs, formerly of the Blood, a son of the ruling class of Newfoundland, who was set up in rigged card game and accused of cheating in punishment for his previous cheating at cards. He loses both his thumbs before being Outlawed by the Blood. He manages to escape from Newfoundland to mainland America in a smugglers’ submarine and once in the Yukon finds work making ‘glycer-fortis’ (the equivalent of gelignite). He’s sent back to Newfoundland after 18 months to persuade one of the Patrons (heads of the different Blood clans) to join forces with the smugglers in Yukon so that they can open up a trade route between the two.

What follows is weeks of crawling tension (I was forcibly reminded of Frodo and Sam’s journey through the land of Mordor) as Elias tries to fulfil his task without being killed outright, and Elizabeth seeks to find a way to get herself, Julia, and Tinker, safely to the Americas. There’s a battle, and explosions, there’s pain and misery, there’s hope and friendship, and the whole is wrapped up in Duncan’s trademark character-driven, immersive narrative style. A truly excellent book.

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