“Beyond Sanctuary” by Janet Morris


Beyond Sanctuary (Sacred Band of Stepsons: Beyond Trilogy Book 1)

“Beyond Sanctuary” is a fascinating, powerful, infuriating, intoxicating, confusing mess. Or something like that. A week after reading it I still can’t decide whether I loved it or hated it. Probably both. It’s certainly sui generis and a fascinating entry into the genre of sword and sorcery fantasy.

The book is composed of a series of linked vignettes featuring recurring characters as they battle each other. There’s Tempus, the cursed leader of a military band who has an unhealthy obsession with his sister Cime, who is whisked off to become the lover of a god. Niko is a young brother in Tempus’s band with a noble streak and a thing for young girls. The Froth Daughter is the incarnated manifestation of divine power, which doesn’t stop her from becoming Tempus’s (mistreated) lover. Roxane is a powerful witch chafing under the thumb of her even more powerful wizard-lover. All of them are carrying out plots, subplots, vendettas, and every kind of scheming and conniving that can be imagined. The effect is in turns intriguing and chaotic: the reader is dropped directly into the action and allowed to figure out who these people are and what they’re up to as the story unfolds. In principle I enjoy this strategy, but sometimes I found myself thirsting for a little more backstory.

Like High Couch of Silistra (The Silistra Quartet Book 1), high-couch-of-silistrathe other book I’ve read by Morris, the world-building is excellent and the characterization is complex. Using a few well-chosen details, the author plunges you into a world so real you can practically smell the dust, sweat, and pedigreed horses. One of the most unusual details is the characters’ regular use of intoxicating drugs (this is not a book for the juvenile set!): everyone uses something called krrf on a regular basis and other, more esoteric, substances when they can get them. The presence of drugs in the narrative underscores and heightens the dreamlike, fragmented, hyper-real impression it gives, both in its external descriptions of the landscape and in the internal descriptions of the characters’ minds.

Although this is not a “psychological” work per se, the characters all have finely drawn inner lives, driven by ambition, lust, regret, fear, and a whole host of other emotions. Particularly interesting (and frustrating) in this regard are the female characters: they jump out off the page, demanding to be heard and taken seriously. It’s unfortunate, then (at least to my mind) that the dominant response to them can be summed up by what Cime is told by Askelon, the god of dreams: “Silence best becomes you.” Sadly, “Cime shut her mouth.” I kept hoping that the scheming sorceress Roxane would realize her ambitions to destroy everyone, but alas, no 😉 The forces of law and right, which here, as elsewhere, are associated with masculinity, prevail. “Beyond Sanctuary” is full of impressive examples of the power of femininity and female sexuality, but it is a sexuality pacified and bought off with rough sex, if not, in the words of Julia Kristeva, “virulently suppressed.” Prefiguring what might be called “sex and sorcery” works such as Jacqueline Carey’s “Kushiel” series, “Beyond Sanctuary” manages to bring grit, drugs, and sex into the often squeaky-clean world of fantasy. It may not be the last word on the subject, but it is certainly a powerful and important first word.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.

Want your own copy?  Get it here: Beyond Sanctuary (Sacred Band of Stepsons: Beyond Trilogy Book 1)

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