Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review of The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: The War with the Mein was the author’s first foray into speculative fiction and a book that stretched itself between classic and contemporary epic fantasy.  Though the surface plotline was wrapped up nicely, a few of the outlying threads were left hanging.  And it seems intentionally so.  Picking up events in Acacia nine years after the close of the previous novel, The Other Lands expands the map while setting into motion the main storyline, all left to be concluded in the third volume, The Sacred Band.

In those nine years that have passed since the Mein were defeated and Corinn took power, life in Acacia has settled into a semi-peaceful existence.  One by one Mena has hunted and killed the foulthings—monstrous creatures mutated from the Santoth’s display of magic at the conclusion of Acacia.  Dariel has roamed the land as an engineer, rebuilding what was destroyed in the war.  Corinn’s son Aaden was born and has grown into a healthy boy, doted upon by his queen mother, aunt, and uncle.  But things are only semi-peaceful.  In the twilight of the war, the League have been conniving and produced a masterful ploy to complete their takeover of the Known World.  In the northern land of Aushenia, seeds of unrest amongst the population have been sown, a revolution of democratic proportions budding.  And in the south, a wasteland is developing, the formerly fertile lands wiped clean by the powerful display of Santoth magic, the now barren land threatening to slowly starve the people.

The Other Lands in fact setup for the final book in the trilogy, the narrative devotes more time to establishing a situation than building toward a conclusion.  As such, it’s best to approach The Other Lands as Act I in the Acacia trilogy (The War with the Mein having been the prologue).  The book does expose interesting new aspects of the Known World and possess a tantalizing reveal in its last sentence.  But by and large the book remains stage setting for what is billed to be a showdown of cataclysmic proportions if the manner in which things are left can believed.  In other words, have The Sacred Band handy if the story has grabbed you.

The Other Lands delves much deeper into one aspect that seemed underdeveloped in Acacia: the quota.  What happens to the slaves?  Where are they taken, and, to what purpose are they put?  Durham answers these questions, the result more surprising than the reader could have expected.  Though not near the same degree as slavery, the environment is likewise examined in further detail. With the south left ravaged by the Santoth’s unleashing of magic, Durham takes a portion of the book to look at the human effect of magical apocalypse which devastated the land.  Kelis and the others are no longer so proud and confident of the place they call home and set out on a mission which even they are not sure how it will turn out.

But while more deeply examining socially relevant themes, the author simultaneously relaxes his sense of epic fantasy subtlety.  Fantasy clichés more abound, there are a larger number of events and outcomes which have that “been there, done that” feel.  Sire Neen is evil with a capital ‘E’ (his “more goods, more money, more power” tirade is beyond classic); the Rhuin Fa prophecy, well, “prophecy” and “epic fantasy” have shaken hands more than once to say the least; the force of reasoning motivating the Auldek loses touch with reality (i.e. possible only in a fantasy setting); and Corinn’s method of wielding power as queen has been told and told before.  Surprises remain (e.g. Mena’s encounters with foulthings, what becomes of Dariel in the Other Lands, and Grae’s hopes), but the balance point nevertheless seems to have been pushed closer to fairy tale.  

The narrative of The Other Lands remains as flat as Acacia.  Neither poetic or presented in storyteller’s style, Durham moves the story steadily, but in perfunctory text.  Character action, reaction, and situation are the only methods which imbue emotion.  And if I had a nickel for every female character that was walking around in a “thin nightgown” showing her “womanly figure beneath”, I would be able to buy a candy bar.    The sexuality never overt, these extraneous scenes only heighten the idea they are misplaced. 

In the end, The Other Lands does not live up to the standard set by Acacia, but can be forgiven as it is only the first half of a larger story.  The stage nicely set for The Sacred Band, the Known World is ready for all hell to break loose given the events of The Other Lands.  (In fact, it’s best to think of the two latter books in the series as one, rather than two.)  Durham displaying some of the imagination of Jack Vance (emphasis on “some”), many of the new characters and social setups could have come directly from the grandmaster’s play book, not to mention the new creatures of the fantastic.  Style remaining flat and an unnecessary, heightened sexuality to the narrative do the book no favors, but Durham continues to have a strong hand on the tiller, the story moving both with and against the current to unpredictable, generally enjoyable result.  The onus is on Durham to cap the trilogy The Sacred Band given the build up of The Other Lands.

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