The Sacred Band, the final installment in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy, is right around the corner, so I decided to get caught up quickly and read the first two books. I wrote about Acacia: The War with the Mein here, and this post is a quick recap/review of The Other Lands, the second book in the trilogy.
Warning: this post contains huge spoilers for Acacia: The War with the Mein and The Other Lands, but nothing about The Sacred Band. Don’t read this if you haven’t read the first two books in the Acacia trilogy yet!
The Other Lands starts with a “The Story So Far” section (something I always appreciate in series books) followed by a Prologue that’s actually set during the ninth year of Hanish Mein’s rule, placing it more or less between sections one and two of Acacia: The War with the Mein. Maybe Durham realized that there wasn’t a whole lot about the plight of the common folks in the first book of this trilogy, which made its dystopian aspect a bit anonymous and intangible, because this prologue shows the horrific scene of a large amount of Quota children being collected for transportation to the Lothan Aklun. Ravi and Mor are teenaged twins, and the boy (Ravi) tries to get the entire group to rebel against their captors, which sets up a storyline that will pick up again in the second section of this novel.
After the prologue, the first section of The Other Lands (“The Gray Slopes”) basically shows the current state of the Acacian empire, provides an update on what the main characters of Acacia: The War with the Mein have been up to since the end of that book, and sets up the main plot for this novel and the next one. Several years after the end of the war with the Mein, the empire is still recovering. There’s threat of famine in Talay because of climate change brought on by the Santoth’s uncontrolled magic. Another result of their tainted magic are the horribly mutated animals known as “foulthings”. Mena is busy hunting these down with her two lieutenants Melio (who is now also her husband) and Kelis, who was Aliver’s companion during his exile in Talay. Kelis is summoned by a Talayan elder and learns that Aliver (the late heir of king Leodan) and Benabe had a child, Shen, who now has visions and communicates with the Santoth. Shen, being the firstborn child of an Acacian king, would actually be next in line for the throne, possibly before Aliver’s sister Corinn, who took the throne at the end of the first book, and definitely before Aaden, who is the child of Corinn and Hanish Mein and who, throughout the novel, is one of its most intriguing characters—which is promising for The Sacred Band.
Meanwhile, Queen Corinn, now known as the “Fanged Rose”, is learning to perform more and more magic from The Song of Elenet. Among other things, she uses it to supply water for the parched Talayan lands, and as the novel progresses her magic becomes even more powerful. She is also still dealing with the League of Vessels, who have set up a slave-breeding facility on the Outer Isles (formerly Dariel/Spratling’s pirate haven), which, as horrific as it is, means there’s no need to round up slaves from the mainland anymore. One of Corinn’s deals with the League involves “the vintage,” a new way of delivering the “Mist” drug to the general population.
The League tells Corinn that they tried to plant spies among the slaves sent to the Other Lands, but that the Auldek (who are the real power there rather than the Lothan Aklun) caught and tortured them. They ask Corinn to travel to the Other Lands to patch things up, but instead she delegates Dariel to meet with them. I found this a bit surprising, given that he’s not exactly the League’s best friend after blowing up one of their platforms in the first book. As you’d maybe expect it’s revealed later that the League didn’t forget about this and, even worse, that the wife of the League representative who leads the delegation was killed in Dariel’s attack. Nevertheless, Dariel, who had been busy doing charity work and rebuilding after the war with the Mein, agrees to the mission, but when he arrives in Ushen Brae with the delegation, he discovers that the entire Lothan Aklun population has been killed by a League virus. All along, the League planned to strike a deal directly with the Auldek, offering them the Known World on a platter, but this goes horribly wrong when the Auldek take matters into their own hands and slaughter half of the delegation. Dariel is captured by representatives of the Free People, a resistance group of the Auldek’s human slaves led by Mor, who is one of the twins from the prologue. Rialus Neptos, a minor character from Acacia: The War with the Mein who somehow always found himself in the power of the side that opposed the empire, is captured by the Auldek, providing the reader a great first-hand look at the Auldek culture.
Meanwhile in Acacia, Barad the Lesser is preaching Aliver’s old message of justice and equality throughout the empire. Interestingly, this character was briefly mentioned in the first book, but he was called Barack, not Barad the Lesser. Gee, I wonder what happened between 2007 and 2009 that made Durham change the name of a character called Barack who was described as a “silver-tongued, ranting prophet”? I was all proud about spotting this until I found out that Durham already addressed the reason for the change on his blog. Regardless, it’s still a nifty little detail and Durham’s explanation of the change is a great example of the crazy things that can pop up during the long process of getting a novel written and published. Barack-turned-Barad recruits Grae, the half-brother of Igguldan (who briefly was Corinn’s love interest in The War with the Mein) to help with the cause.
The second section of the novel (“On Love and Dragons”) picks up with this same storyline: Barad sends Grae to Corinn to try and seduce her and, if possible, steal The Song of Elenet. For a while it actually looks like this plot may work out as Corinn is definitely enjoying her time with Grae, until Delivegu Lemardine manages to trace him back to Barad, which results in Grae being dismissed from court and Barad being captured, his eyes turned to stone by Corinn’s magic. Delivegu is one of the slimier characters in the series, an Acacian horndog who is trying to weasel his way into Corinn’s good graces, not to mention her bed, by any means necessary. He also reveals to Corinn that Wren—Dariel’s lover from his days as Spratling the pirate—is pregnant, meaning another possible roadblock for Aaden’s eventual ascension to the throne.
Mena, who was dragged off by what seemed to be a dragon-like foulthing at the end of section one, regains consciousness, miraculously healed from her injuries, and befriends the creature, who she names Elya. She even establishes something like a telepathic bond with it. In one of the best scenes in the novel, she turns her return into an unforgettable grand entrance, landing astride Elya in the middle of a royal ball.
On the other side of the world, Dariel is a prisoner of the Free People and is being interrogated about life in the Known World. Tunnel, the friendliest of his captors, thinks he may be a messianic figure called the Rhuin Fá. Meanwhile Neptos, who is a prisoner of the Auldek, learns that they are planning to invade the Known World. He also learns that the Auldek are both immortal (thanks to a Lothan Aklun device called the “soul catcher” that can implant extra souls into their bodies) and infertile (as a result of a curse). One of the souls contained in Devoth, the fearsome leader of the Auldek, is Mor’s twin brother Ravi.
Meanwhile Kelis, Shen, Benabe and Naamen are travelling to meet the Santoth and discover that the old general, Leeka Alain, is now their servant. It’s revealed that Kelis may have had stronger feelings than just friendship for Aliver (“I loved a prince in ways different than he loved me”), something I completely missed in the first book.
In the novel’s third section (“Song of Souls”), we learn a lot about the history and structure of Auldek society. There are several Auldek tribes, each with its own totem animal. These tribes warred almost to the point of extinction until the Lothan Aklun (actually banished sorcerors and relatives of Edifus) arrived and set up the slave trade and its steady supply of souls. The Numrek are actually an Auldek tribe that was banished for the crime of eating its human slaves. During their exile they discovered that they were fertile again in the Known World, and this is now the main motivation for the Auldek to invade. Rialus watches a gladiator-like tournament between human slaves who have been surgically altered to resemble the totem animals of various Auldek tribes. Rialus, seemingly doomed to always work for his empire’s opponents, is being pumped for information about the empire to help with the invasion. Devoth promises the human slaves freedom if they help defeat the Acacians.
Meanwhile Dariel has decided that he wants to help the resistance movement of the Free People, maybe to atone for his family’s part in their original enslavement. To blend in, he gets tattooed so he resembles one of them. Reverting to his old pirate behavior, he uses a Lothan “soul vessel” (powered by slaves’ souls) to capture explosives from the League and blow up the Lothan soul catcher. After this, the People offer Dariel the freedom to go warn the Acacians of the imminent invasion, but he decides to stay with them.
In Acacia, the Numrek become aware of the invasion plans (they somehow deduce this simply from the fact that one of the Leaguemen seems nervous) and launch an all-out attack. Mena and Aaden are injured, but Elya manages to save them. Shortly thereafter and in one of the more unlikely twists in the novel, Delivegu conveniently discovers the existence of the palace’s secret passages Dariel used in the past, just in time to overhear Mena tell Aaden about Elya’s eggs. He uses this information to weasel his way further into Corinn’s good graces.
Leeka Alain leads Kelis, Shen, Benabe and Naamen to the Santoth, who say they need The Song of Elenet to be able to help in the upcoming war. Shen stays with them and only rejoins her companions a month later, informing them that the Santoth can sense whenever Corinn uses the Song to perform magic, and that she must be stopped because each of those acts of magic allows horrors from other dimensions (and “other worlds” created by the Giver) through rents in reality.
Corinn tries to reach Dariel using the Song, but she can’t get throught to him. She does manage to reach Rialus Neptos, and he confirms that war is coming. Corinn sends out the drugged “vintage” wine to stop widespread panic in the empire, and abolishes the Quota. She gives Mena the King’s Trust (the ancient sword of Edifus) and sends her on what looks suspiciously like a suicide mission to try and stop the Auldek advance in the frozen north. She also uses magic to make Barad preach for rather than against her, and as the novel ends, she performs two final acts of magic: she alters Elya’s eggs in a (so far) unspecified way, and brings Aliver back from the dead. On that resounding note, The Other Lands ends.
The good news is that The Other Lands is a considerably better novel than Acacia: The War with the Mein in every single respect. The most important improvement is the fact that it only has two of the highly improbable plot twists that were so problematic in the first book: the way the Numrek on Acacia learn of the coming invasion, and the timing of Delivegu’s jaunt through the palace’s secret passageways. Aside from those two eye-rollers, the plot makes almost perfect sense, which made a world of difference in terms of my enjoyment of the novel.
This second novel also benefits from jumping right into the action, whereas the first section of the series opener is basically one big, slow lump of exposition. It also helps that the characters have evolved from the templates they were at the start of book one into the more interesting and original people they turned out to be. All of this makes The Other Lands a much better and more entertaining novel than Acacia: The War with the Mein.
The final factor that makes The Other Lands so much better is, well, the actual “other lands,” or “Ushen Brae” as they’re called on the suddenly expanded world map. You have to admire Durham for building up the Lothan Aklun all through book one, only to finally reveal them when they’ve all been killed by the League. Didn’t see that coming! The Auldek themselves are interesting: at first they come across as slightly more civilized Numrek, but as you read more about them they turn out to have a fairly unique culture and history. The whole “additional souls for extra lives” thing is a bit vague for my taste, but maybe we’ll learn more about it in The Sacred Band. I did like (in a horrified sort of way) the pre-sorting process the slaves go through: some are good enough to become warriors representing the Auldek clans, some are turned into extra souls or lives for the actual Auldek, and others basically just become fodder to power the ships and other devices. Much like the slave Quota in book one, it’s all described in a distant way that masks how truly horrific all of it really is.
In the end, I thought that the later sections of Acacia: The War with the Mein were better than its early parts, and now I feel that The Other Lands as a whole is considerably better than the first novel. Hopefully this upwards trajectory continues with The Sacred Band, the third book in the series.