I know I'm slow on the uptake with book reviews. I have so many that I try to read that I don't usually get to new ones until they've been out for a few months. Unless of course publishers send me ARCs (hint, hint - I need more of these!). I finally got around to finishing David Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy this week. The final book, The Sacred Band, came out late in 2011. The trilogy as a whole was a rare, satisfying read. I like to compare books to food. Books are food for the brain, and like food for the stomach, they can taste great (or awful), fill you up (or leave you starving), and nourish you (or give you gut rot and cavities). Durham's trilogy manages to do all three.
The Acacia trilogy is epic in scope. We travel through many years and get to know a good number of characters from a variety of different nations. Many characters come full circle from being children in the first book to having kids of their own by the end. This circle is at the heart of the trilogy. Most actions, violent or benevolent, are driven by the love parents have for their children. The first book, Acacia, ushers readers onto the isle of Acacia and into the privileged lives of the four royal children - Aliver, Corinn, Mena, and Dariel. Their world falls apart when their father, King Leodan, is assassinated. Before he dies, Leodan arranges for his children to be taken to different ends of the earth, to be raised away from the chaos of a nation under attack. Only Aliver ends up living the life his father intended for him, but each child grows and lives through their days with their father's memory never far away.
It's difficult to write about these books without spoiling them, but Durham deftly twists the ending of Acacia in a way that would make George RR Martin proud. In fact, it's easy to compare the two authors, but only to an extent. While the world of Acacia can be harsh, it is also beautiful. Where Martin likes to dwell in the slime and stink of Westeros, Durham rises above that, while letting his readers know that the slime and stink of Acacia still exists. In fact, the slime and stink of Acacia are what keeps the nation running.
In the second book, The Other Lands, three of the four siblings are reunited. Corinn is the undisputed Queen of the Acacian Empire and now has her own child. In this book, readers learn more about the Quota - a multi generational trade with the Other Lands. In exchange for Mist, a drug that subdues the populace, Acacia delivers tens of thousands of children to the Other Lands with no knowledge of what happens to them. While it was Aliver's dream to end this abomination, the journey to the Other Lands is Dariel's to make.
This book, along with the third, focus heavily on the protection of future generations, most especially evident in Corinn's relationship with her own son, Aaden. A lot of the second and third books focus on children learning from their parents' mistakes and also making some of their own. More so than in the first book, Durham seems to be sending the message that the love a parent has for their child is the most sacred love one can feel, and all kinds of beautiful and horrible things can come from such unwavering emotion. I get the feeling that while this love can be a wonderful thing, it's also terrifying. To Durham's credit, he conveys this in a way that doesn't alienate those who are not parents (like myself).
While the third book, The Sacred Band, takes place chronologically after The Other Lands, Durham uses it to look back at conflicts twenty two generations in the past. These conflicts, which have become part of Acacian mythology and religion, are still haunting the land. For generation after generation, the circle that is life has continued from father to son and mother to daughter.
In The Other Lands, we meet the Auldek race from across the sea, who make war on Acacia in order to feel alive again. They have not been able to bear children for many hundreds of years and in their inability to create life, they choose to take it. At this point, Durham's narrative becomes entirely driven by thoughts of the future. To the Auldek the immortality of a single life is nothing compared to immortality through creation.
Corinn continues to make horrible decisions in securing her son's empire. Mena avoids having children while putting Acacia first, much to the chagrin of her husband. Dariel fathers children on both sides of the ocean (because he's a total pimp). Even the dragon from The Other Lands (beautiful Elya) has children now, although they have been reappropriated by Corinn.
The Acacia trilogy as a whole seems to be on some level a metaphor for parenthood. No matter how determined a person is to raise a good kid or fairly rule an empire, they're going to mess up. And maybe your empire will rebel or your kid will hate some of the things you've done. Real power comes not from taking decisive action or making executive decisions - it comes from owning up to the mistakes those actions may have caused and doing your best to fix them.
The Sacred Band brings the trilogy full circle (hence the title - at least partially). Acacia has stopped looking to the past for guidance and started looking to the future. Currently, Durham doesn't have any plans to continue this series, but a part of me feels like this story is just starting. Then again, I think Durham has left his readers in a great place to continue the story on their own. Much like a good meal, the end of the Acacia trilogy has left me pleasantly full, with many good memories of the experience.
Fans of both traditional and more modern fantasy will relate to Durham's work. In addition to the Acacia trilogy, Durham has also writen the historical fiction powerhouse Pride of Carthage, and Gabriel's Story, set in the old West. He's currently working on a mid-grade young adult fantasy book, which I'm sure will kick ass.