Picking up the events precisely where The Other Lands left off, The Sacred Band is the other half of the story, and the conclusion of David Anthony Durham’s epic fantasy trilogy Acacia. Traditional fantasy continuing to be given its due, the author likewise moves forward with subverting the familiar with ideas more pro- than transgressive within the sub-genre. Unpredictable at a minimum, those who have followed the story of the Akaran children with an idea to the intra-story themes Durham is working toward will not be disappointed. Those with eyes only for blood and glory, may be.
Having heard the news of the Auldek’s march to purify themselves by starting a new generation through battle, Akaran prepares itself for war. Mena, without her beloved Elya, travels to the cold northern reaches to plan the Acacian army’s defense. Corinn, having recently brought her brother back from the dead, crowns Aliver king, giving the revitalized man the opportunity to redeem his failures and the people a hero to cheer for. In the south, Kelis, Shen, Benabe, Leeka and the others continue their cross-country plight to learn more of the mysterious Santoth. In Ushen Brae, Dariel escapes a collapsing social situation for adventures in the wilds that will forever change who he is as a man. And the League, always hanging on the margins, scheme and plot over the Lothun Aklun knowledge the Auldek left behind, expecting to rise to the forefront. These and the other side stories are interwoven through affective, occasionally exciting events that draw the entire Known World into a new phase of its evolution. What that phase is, will be surprising.
Established in Acacia: The War with the Mein and carried forward in The Other Lands, Durham continues to both embrace and subvert traditional fantasy motifs in The Sacred Band. The age-old theme of oppression, the base presentation of inter-cultural enmity, dragons, epic showdowns, the prophecies, quests, and magic that eliminates problems in one sweep continue to be featured heavily. Simultaneously, however, Durham presents many ideas atypical of the genre. Personal growth, female strength and wisdom, forgiveness, healing, the importance of understanding, and a view to the future which affects the present are featured in parallel.
A cross between David Gemmell’s brand of heroic fantasy and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, Durham mixes gritty action with themes of a soft fantasy nature. There are sacrifices, epic battles, and the deaths of heroes, but Durham’s aims at something higher. The conclusions of the various story threads, while often candy-sweet, have a vision that would see the reader look beyond the cycles of violence and vengeance—the hallmarks of epic fantasy—to something more lasting and momentous. Aliver’s role is in particular one with universal and long-term rather than Achillean, temporal goals.
That being said, however, it’s at times difficult to swallow Durham’s proffered solutions to the ills plaguing the Known World. Wholly dependent on the supernatural, there are extremely few ideas which can be transitioned to the real world if the moral message is to remain intact. Dariel and Aliver’s stories in particular are flights of the imagination that poorly represent any concept a person might actually utilize to make a society better—symbolically or practically. The fantasy world Durham has created, while wholly imaginative, is too far removed from our own to offer any meaningful comparisons to slavery, egoism, and inter-cultural differences. Magic makes everything better in the Known World, but we, unfortunately, have none at the tips of our fingers to produce the same effect. By comparison, Le Guin’s Earthsea, which also utilizes the supernatural, places the crux of the message on human decision and personal insight, that is, rather than a magic wand to cast trouble into oblivion. It’s difficult to continue discussing this topic without spoiling the story, so I must stop. Suffice to say, the climax of Dariel and Aliver’s stories, while entertaining reading, translates to the real world only in good vs. evil proportion.
And there are other issues. While the overall story is well plotted, there remain several large holes. Rialus’ role in the story is a particularly troublesome point. His interaction with the Auldek and Acacians towards the end of the book is head-shakingly unbelievable. The same might be said of Delivegu’s final position. Moreover, the hand-waving done to the “special vintage” defies the tension built around the concept, making it feel empty—if the lack of personalized characterization didn’t already. And the poisonings which occur, well, they result in weak scenarios at best. Adding to the previous point, the implausible story events serve to lengthen the story’s distance from the real world.
In the end, The Sacred Band—and series as a whole—is an enjoyable read if the reader relaxes their expectations for a human story that is able to translate its message to the real world, and instead looks for a colorful, creative foray into the realms of imaginative fantasy. Durham sets his thematic sights high—and deserves recognition for his attempt at incorporating socially harmonious themes—but ends up on streets walked by many writers due to the incongruities in plot, workman-like style, and reliance on fantasy rather than character to resolve the quandaries presented. There are attempts at moral profundity, but due to the simplistic presentation of the issues, particularly that magic makes it all go away, the book ends up having little effect. The value is more in entertainment than message, and for that, the books are worth their weight in gold; an magination for epic fantasy is something Durham seems to have no shortage of. Similar in style and content, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet is a contemporary of the Acacia series. Fans of one will probably like the other.