British teenager Jake Knight loves only a few things in this world: ‘free running’ or parkour, his handy smart phone, and adventure. His eagerness to have all three get him suspended from his boarding school in England and sent to live with his diplomat family in the small West African country of Burkina Faso. But before he settles in, he and his younger sister, Kas, are kidnapped by desert bandits and Jake gets all the excitement he wished for—and more.
Outlaw, by novice author Stephen Davies, would seem to be an adventure first and foremost. And yet for all of the elements of adventure it does have (exotic locales, double-crosses, colorful characters, and well-choreographed action sequences) it’s apparent when the book loses focus. Davies, a missionary in Burkina Faso, is intimately familiar with the cultural feel of West Africa and occasionally slows the book from rip-roaring page-turner to didactic travelogue. The more I felt this, the more I realized that Jake and Kas only exist to go “Gee whiz!” at all the cool stuff they learn. The complicated ambivalence Jake feels about his journey—that the adventure he so yearned comes with less than desirable consequences—is undermined by his mostly observer status in the novel. Jake’s personal growth from ungrateful teenager to staunch advocate of rural Africa is too sudden and conclusive to be believable. Rather than being a mirror for the reader’s emotions, as he gently guides us to a conclusion, Jake represents a set of altruistic beliefs we should accept as postmodern individuals like him. Just once, I would’ve liked to see him revert to his old beliefs or doubt his new ones and then have a real internal conflict. It seems Outlaw is more about Africa than it is about character development.
The real main character would actually seem to be Yakuuba Sor, the Robin Hood of Africa. Sor uses a vast array of disguises, magic tricks, and nonviolent diversions to lead his band of rebels against the corrupt government. In the author’s note, Davies admits that Sor is a fictionalization of the kind of iconic peacekeeper he wishes to see act in that fragile region. Sor is too mythical to truly identify with, but he’s at the least an extremely likeable character. He is truly the figurehead of a proud culture.
Opposite of Sor is the government of Burkina Faso and their allies, the British. One of the most bizarre characters is Roy Dexter, a traumatized MI6 operative sent to rescue Jake and Kas. He is incompetent, mentally unstable, and misplaced as he awkwardly enters and exits the plot with no clear reasoning. However, along with Dexter are several pieces of astounding real-life technology like pilotless drones and cyborg beetles (totally real!). Dexter’s character may be a bad fit, but the cutting-edge technology of modern terrorist hunting is rightfully included, and furthermore proves that Davies understands the world we live in today. If only the plot were as rich and detailed as the world Davies creates for it.
Bottom Line: There is a definite sense of geopolitical setting to Outlaw, but it suffers from weak characterization.
Evan is a learning teenage writer whose ambition is to become a film director someday, but not until he’s published a few books first. In the meantime, he spends his time playing drums in his jazz band 3 AM Groove, writing for the school paper, building sets on stage crew, and trying to perfect his 100 greatest movies of all time list. He does not like long walks on the beach.