Some battles can’t be won by swords.
Welcome to one of the March 30th stops on the blog tour for The Outworlder by Natalie J. Holden with Escapist Book Tours (#EscapistBookTours | Twitter | Instagram.) Look for others participating in this tour for more great content!
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About the Book
by Natalie J. Holden
Published 28 May 2021
Genre: Science Fantasy
Page Count: 259
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Some battles can’t be won by swords.
Aldeaith’s parents escaped the oppression of their native Tarviss to settle within the Dahlsian Empire. Growing between cultures, Aldeaith always felt like an outcast. His awkwardness around people and propensity to daydreaming didn’t help.
Joining the Dahlsian army was supposed to be a fresh start. A new hope of finding people like him in the vast, multicultural empire. Here, a web of portals keep people close and advanced magic makes everyone equal.
But his hopes are shattered when Tarvissian colonists rebel against Dahls.
His commander’s trust protects him from the immediate backlash, but that is just the beginning. The rebels will stop at nothing to restore the traditional order, one that kept people like Aldeaith subjugated. And Dahlsian army is woefully unprepared and far from unified.
Accused of treason, with the chain of command falling apart around him, he’d have to use all of his wits and accept responsibilities he never wanted, or watch everyone he cares about perish.
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CW: Violence, Swearing, Character death, Drug use, Mental health issues
Defensive circles surrounded the Mansion. Through Vuilsumnaar goggles, I could trace their outlines. First, the red lines of simple alarms, but near the Mansion they intertwined with yellow and turquoise defensive spells. I knew their general function, but predicting their real-world effects would require knowledge I didn’t have.
Sorcery in Tarviss was different than in Dahls. Though the energies it controlled were the same, the methods differed greatly. I wasn’t sure about the details; I was no sorcerer. I wondered how deep Dahlsian understanding was of Tarvissian magic—and specifically if it was deep enough to counter their spells.
More specifically, if the protection they promised would be enough to keep me alive.
A few soldiers escorted me as far as they dared, but they stayed behind while I paused at the very edge of the protected area. For the first time, I took a good look at the rebels base.
It wasn’t a real noble house, merely an imitation. Previously, it most likely served as the community center with offices, granaries, and a big yard used as a marketplace. It was short but sprawling, with whitewashed walls—now darkened by soot—and a gently sloped roof covered in red tiles. A few banners hung from the walls: a checkered, black-and-white background with a green trident, the central prong much thicker than those on the sides. The coat of Tarviss. I realized I’d never seen it displayed before today.
The outer windows were narrow—a relic of older times when such mansions were often used for defense. And it worked. With thick walls and double gates, the building was almost impenetrable. Thanks to a few wells and full storage, the rebels could stay inside for cycles.
Provided they didn’t decide to send their troops back to Kooine. With most members of Mespana gathered here, they wouldn’t have much trouble seizing other worlds.
Or maybe not. Despite harsh conditions in Kooine, there were large colonies of nonhumans living there, mining for rare metals, tertium salts, and natural glass. I didn’t think they’d give their homes to the Tarvissi without a fight.
And yet, I hesitated. It’s not that I didn’t trust the Dahlsi…
Okay, maybe a little. But I couldn’t just turn back. Not now, not after everything.
I sucked in air. It tasted of smoke.
Well, now or never, I thought.
I moved my left foot over the spell.
The red line rippled, and the magic current ran up my leg. But apart from that, nothing. No trace of resistance. I waited for a few seconds, but nothing else happened. My right foot joined my left on the other side. Still nothing.
Just an alarm, I chided myself. They probably knew I was coming. The real test of Dahlsian protection was yet to come.
I moved forward, walking carefully but steadily, my eyes fixed on the mansion, looking out for danger. It was no use, though. They wouldn’t come out for me, and the windows were too narrow for me to peek inside. Still, I watched, thinking that if they decided to shoot me down, at least I might glimpse the incoming arrow. Or spell. Something. Maybe I would spot movement behind one of the windows; catch a gleam in hateful eyes.
I saw nothing. Beneath my feet, spell after spell faltered before snapping back into place. They were all red. All harmless. Soon, though, I stood before a different line. A yellow one.
What would that one do? Turn me into stone upon crossing? Set me on fire? A real sorcerer could probably identify it, determine if my protections were strong enough to counteract it, but I was not a sorcerer. I was just a guy with a handful of devices, the inner workings of which I would never understand.
I took the next step.
That time, I felt something—the faintest hint of resistance; a numbness crawling up my leg and overwhelming my whole body for a heartbeat.
Then it vanished. The yellow line disappeared. I let out a long, shaky breath.
So, the Dahlsian spells were working after all.
I picked up my trek, but my steps became slower, more calculated. I felt a slight tingling at the back of my neck, and I knew I was being watched. I braced myself for an attack, but none came.
Sooner than I would have liked, I found myself standing before the gate. Twice as tall as me, flanked by the white, black, and green banners of Tarviss.
Did the rebels want to talk to me? Or turn me into an example?
It was dark inside. There was light in the distance, in the main courtyard. I whispered a spell, and my goggles changed mode: the blackness melted into shades of gray. Ahead of me ran a wide corridor with doors on both sides. I was struck by the realization that if I walked in, I might never come out. But, I guess, despite all logical evidence, my brain rejected that idea, because I felt nothing. No fear, no anxiety. Not yet. Just cold, silent numbness.
I stepped in.
The gate closed slowly behind me. I walked straight into the courtyard. When I emerged from the darkness and took my goggles off, I realized it was crowded, with only a small opening left for me. All around stood burly, bearded men in traditional Tarvissian outfits: black trousers, loose white shirts, and jyats—knee-length, sleeveless coats—in the same shade of green.
My insides coiled in anxiety.
Then, following my brain’s tendency to focus on the weirdest thing, I realized something. Being surrounded at all times by people who could fit under my armpit, it was easy to forget, but the Tarvissi were tall. And I wasn’t, by any means, the tallest. In fact, I was closer to the lower end of average.
And why hadn’t I brought my Tarvissian garb? It hadn’t even occurred to me in Sfal, and now all I had was my Dahlsian uniform, suddenly too tight, too exposing. And why did I shave this morning? No chance I could grow anything to compete with what these guys were sporting, but now I felt like a kid.
In fact, I felt no less alien here than I had in the vessár-ai tent.
Hearing my name spoken properly for the first time in ages came as a shock. My body tensed. I feared it wouldn’t listen to me, but somehow, I managed to turn around, trying to locate the speaker. It wasn’t hard. He was standing one step ahead of everyone else, slightly to my left.
“Peridion,” I countered, almost barking the name out.
I knew him, as much as I regretted it. We grew up together—sort of. Despite the fact that my parents let him live, he was never really part of our community. He remained outside, skulking at the edges of the colony, barely talking to anyone, thinking himself far above us solely because of his ancestry.
Because Karlan Peridion was a noble. The son of the lord who was in charge of my family before my father slit his throat to free himself from aristocratic oppression.
I was so fucked.
“Aldeaith Tearshan,” he drawled languidly. His voice was naturally high pitched, and he always tried to make it sound lower. The result was grotesque at best. Everything about him was grotesque: strangely disproportionate body with long, frail limbs and a barrel-like chest, wide face with small, sharp features, adorned with thick, brown curls on top, but unable to grow a half-decent beard. Almost as if someone had taken random elements and connected them without an ounce of care about how they fit together.
“Look at him, thinking himself a real Dahlsi,” he said, turning away from me. He had a knife he was waving around carelessly. I just waited for him to drop it.
I felt a kick to the back of my knee and I collapsed, more from surprise than pain. Someone twisted my hands behind my back. My thoughts scattered in panic, until I spotted something that grabbed my attention and allowed me to focus for long enough to collect myself. My wand. Some bastard was already handing it to Peridion, having apparently snatched it from my belt. That wand had been with me from the beginning, covered in scratches and slightly chipped at the end from the close call in Sorox. The sight of it made some half-forgotten thought scratch at the back of my mind, but I pushed it away. I had more pressing problems. Peridion didn’t even seem interested in my weapons, putting them aside and studying me with pure, unadulterated hatred.
His lips twitched in a cruel smile when he addressed the crowd again, “Maybe we should cut his legs at the knees. He’d be just like them imps.”
I wanted to say something, but my jaw was frozen and my mind blank. And no, it wasn’t because of the looming death. My brain had already detected a much bigger threat.
He might talk to me.
Myar Mal, I thought. He didn’t send me here to die.
I focused on the knife Karlan was wielding and tried to pretend it was just him and me. There was no crowd surrounding us, surrounding me, witnessing my ineptitude in all of its ingloriousness.
“I come as a representative of Dahls,” I stammered. It sounded weak. Pathetic.
Karlan’s face contorted in anger. He jumped forward and slapped me. For a moment, my universe shrank until nothing but the pain remained.
“I see your manners have slipped in Dahls,” his sneer broke through. “But in Tarviss, those like you don’t speak unless asked.”
I was certainly glad I was not born in Tarviss.
My mind cleared, but I did my best to limit the amount of sensation I let through. I focused on the slap. I could have avoided Karlan’s hand; I could have grabbed it and broken it. I was much stronger than him, after all. But that wouldn’t be wise when I was in his domain, surrounded by people, who, judging by the reaction, were his subjects. So I let it slip. I dropped my head, like the meek, obedient peon I was supposed to be, and hoped he didn’t notice that my hatred for him was as strong as his for me.
“But, since you’re so eager, tell me if your masters have agreed to our terms,” he said.
I had no masters, only higher-ups, but it wasn’t time for discussing semantics. I just repeated what I was instructed to say, “As part of Meon Cluster, Maurir belongs to Dahls, and is and will always be, subject to Dahlsian rule.” I barely finished the first sentence before the crowd started booing. I waited for them to calm down before picking up. “If the people living here decide to live according to Tarvissian laws, they’re free to do so. If they want to obey the Tarvissian Council, they can. If they want to pay taxes to Tarviss, they can. But only after paying their due to Dahls.”
“See, that’s the problem,” said Peridion, waving his knife in circles. “Dahlsian rule means the people’s rule, and if we let the people decide, sooner or later the decision will fall to those like you. And we can’t have that.”
I ignored him and continued with my message, “If you surrender now, none of you will get hurt. You will be deported and barred from reentering, but the Directory will consider allowing other people of Tarvissian descent to enter the colonies in the future.”
Was it a laughable sentence? Yes, it was. Did it make my blood boil when I heard it? You bet it did. Those assholes were murderers and insurgents. They deserved to die.
But there were too many of them. Dahls had never faced such a big group and was not eager to try now, especially when there was a risk of angering its bigger neighbor. So, the Directory was willing to let them out, to restore the peace and pretend the whole thing never happened.
I understood that. I hated it, but I understood.
“Are you listening to me, or are you just repeating what they told you?” Peridion’s eyes narrowed. “I shouldn’t expect much; you were always dumb, even for a peon. Let me say it simply: Dahls has lost this colony. It’s Tarviss’s territory now. If your people come here, we’ll kill them.”
“You don’t even have a connection to Tarviss,” I said, letting my opinion slip for the first time.
They didn’t think this uprising through. True, they could stay in the mansion for days, but certainly not forever. With the merge blocked, they had no means to bring in more people, weapons, or food. Mespana could step aside and wait for them to starve.
But, I guessed, we needed a show of strength to discourage other potential dissidents. Besides, making sure the rebels wouldn’t try to expand their territory to Kooine would require a constant guard, something we couldn’t afford. So maybe quelling this rebellion as soon as possible was our best option.
“That was one of our terms,” said Peridion condescendingly.
Yes, and Tayrel Kan had fun responding to it.
“You assholes think it’s enough to draw a magic circle, make fart noises, and you can bend the universe to your will,” he’d mocked. “It’s bullshit. The laws of physics are unbreakable. You can’t merge the worlds that are not properly aligned in the first place. It’s just physically impossible. Tell it to those morons.”
“It can’t be done,” I said.
“Maurir and Tarviss are not aligned,” I explained, trying not to mimic Tayrel Kan’s tone. “They can’t be merged.”
“Somehow all the worlds can be aligned if the Dahlsi want them to,” he spat, and I realized he knew as much about magic as I did. That didn’t stop him from making outrageous claims and demanding the universe to obey, like the spoiled brat he was.
“Not really,” I said, trying to sound calm. “Look, I’m not a sorcerer. People smarter than me made calculations; they’re in my pouch if you want to check.”
“I’m not interested in calculations; I’m interested in results.”
“And the results are physically impossible.”
“Well, maybe we just didn’t state our terms clear enough.”
Before I could respond, someone grabbed my hair and pulled my head back.
“I think we should remind your friends in Dahls we’re not playing games here,” said Peridion, coming closer to me, waving his knife menacingly.
“Think about it,” I rasped, trying to break the grasp, but those who held me—at least two—were stronger. “This is your last chance to back off. If you kill me, there will be no more talk; Dahlsi will kill you all!”
“It would do you better to stick to farming,” he said, ignoring my words. “You wanted to play with real men? Now you’re gonna pay for it.”
“You know, I think I figured out why you cling so much to old customs,” I spat, desperately trying to break the grip of the thugs holding me. “They give you a sense of privilege, no matter who you are as a person. Because stripped of them, you are nothing!”
“Well, I hope your personal qualities have earned you enough merit among those imps to grant you a decent funeral once we’re done with you.”
Someone’s hand grabbed my face and forced my eye wide open. Peridion was standing right next to me now, his blade tracing lines over my cheek.
I was not a religious man, but at that moment, I prayed. If there was ever a god who listened to those like me, I prayed for salvation.
My Rating: 5 Stars
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I was granted complimentary access to The Outworlder by Natalie J. Holden as part of my participation in a blog tour for this title with Escapist Book Tours. Thank you to all involved in affording me this opportunity! My thoughts are my own and my review is honest.
Science Fantasy can be a difficult genre to write and a gamble to pick up as a reader, but The Outworlder is a prime example of what happens when an author does the genre justice! Magic and science, fantasy and reality, are blended effortlessly in this world in a way that lets you forget that you’re reading a fictional story in a fictional world and jump right into the adventure alongside the characters. The world is rich, well-informed, and clearly much more vast than we know in just this book. I hope this is only book one in the world and that we get more chances to explore! My only “comment” in terms of world-building is that “Mespanians” frequently made me want to say Mesopotamians, and during the stretches that I let my screenreader read it to me that’s what it sounded like Alexa was trying to say.
This book is written entirely in one POV, first-person from Aldait’s experience, and so our view of the world is his. He’s a newcomer here, originally from a world at war, with a very different way of thinking than the people he’s now spending all of his time with. That internal conflicts and newness to everything permeates through the book and colours the experience. I loved it! I must say, though, I frequently forgot Aldait is male. Granted he’s not human so gender identity is already going to be very different but he quite often felt more like a female voice to me. I’m not sure if that was intentional, as this book is very LGBTQIA+ positive, but I wanted to comment on it.
Give me more! More from Holden! More in this universe!
About the Author
A cat at heart and a hopeless herbal tea addict. Prefers imaginary worlds to the real one, but shamelessly uses fiction to tackle real-life issues. Takes not being good with people to the next level.
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