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Thursday, November 3, 2011

I have wildly mixed feelings about David Anthony Durham's The Sacred Band.

On one hand, The Sacred Band is the end of the Acacia trilogy, which is now an epic, literally world-changing fantasy series that is complete in three volumes. That is rather ridiculously rare these days. (Sanderson's Mistborn books, which I haven't read? Other than that, I'm drawing a blank.) It has good momentum. There are moments that I found beautiful or moving, even when I didn't actually like the surrounding context. And I am satisfied by the very broadest level of resolution.

On the other hand, I am not satisfied by many of the more specific resolutions, and my lack of satisfaction has been growing as I re-read and thought and mentally drafted this post. Some of them may well be the kind of thing that only bother me, but they're keeping me from feeling that I really liked the book as a whole.

To start with something more concrete (a spoiler post will follow), this book spends a lot of time revisiting the first book, with mixed success. My reactions to these range from, "Well, I guess, but it would really have helped if there had been even the tiniest hint in this direction at the time," to "Yeah, no, that's a retcon, I see what you did there," to "I don't care how authoritatively the narrative asserts this, I will never ever believe it and nothing can make me, so there." (Yes, my reader reactions are very mature sometimes.) There's also more ambiguity about some of the resolutions than this analytic reader would like (though I may be overanalyzing or expecting too much internal consistency).

Another factor is more subjective and harder to explain. Let me try and back into it: the theme of this book is revenge versus forgiveness, or at least letting go. And there is something to be said for people who have access to power in an unjust system recognizing that injustice and using their power to change the system (especially when, as is so often the case in fantasy, magical ability is heritable).

But it is still a very awkward and delicate thing to have the non-elite characters fall away in this book and have most of the significant action be taken by the royal heirs. This is especially true in the Ushen Brae (Other Lands) sections, where despite all the above I am still not sure that Dariel doesn't turn into the honky that those people needed, but I also had an issue with the way another character wielded supreme executive power on behalf of a whole lot of voiceless-by-fiat people.

Finally, though I realize it seems unfair to complain about this while simultaneously praising the book for completing the trilogy, a few things seem to be dealt with far too quickly. A couple of these are plot, and I think I would have preferred that the problems never be introduced rather than disposed of so offhandedly; one of them is one redemption too many, which made me feel that several chapters of character development had fallen on the cutting room floor. (Not that I wanted to spend more time with that character. Left unredeemed would've been just fine, too, and arguably more consistent with the series as a whole.)

I think the most accurate thing I can say about my reaction to this book is that I did not feel that it lived up to the potential, the promise, and the problems of the prior two books. Durham has admitted that he didn't know how he was going to get to the end while he was writing the first two, and though I didn't know that when I first read The Sacred Band, I was, unfortunately, not at all surprised to hear it. (I was, however, surprised to hear that he thought the ending might though be controversial or genre-defying, as I thought the overall direction was clear throughout.)

So do I recommend the trilogy? There is a lot of good about the series, which I hope the posts about the first two books adequately conveyed. But for those who were waiting to see if the series stuck the landing: I think it wobbled pretty significantly, but my opinion is based on issues that, again, often bother me more than other people. However, since it's not the kind of series where the ending is deeply polarizing yet completely impossible to explain without massive spoilers (see: Baker's Company series, King's Dark Tower series), I hope that even these necessarily-oblique comments give new readers an idea whether they are likely to have the same reaction.

A spoiler post (which will assume familiarity with the book) follows.


Comments:

#1 :: Mike Kozlowski wrote on November 3, 2011 at 10:54 PM:

Sanderson, definitely. And Hobb still writes epic trilogies.


#2 :: Kate wrote on November 4, 2011 at 10:53 AM:

Oh, right. I stopped reading Hobb after the second Fitz trilogy (I think; maybe it was the first), and I hear less-than-stellar things about her more recent work, so she didn't come to mind.


#3 :: Dan Blum wrote on November 4, 2011 at 5:08 PM:

Since many of Hobb's trilogies link together, I am not sure you can call any one of them "complete." (And I stopped reading her as well.)

Your review leaves me uncertain as to whether I will read Durham's trilogy. It still sounds reasonably interesting, but... *looks at non-literal tottering to-read pile*


#4 :: Kate wrote on November 4, 2011 at 9:06 PM:

Dan, I wish I could be more definitive!


#5 :: Konrad wrote on November 4, 2011 at 9:38 PM:

which is now an epic, literally world-changing fantasy series that is complete in three volumes. That is rather ridiculously rare these days.

Daniel Fox's Moshui trilogy is complete and world-changing. I think Sinclair's _____born series is finished in three volumes, but I haven't read the third yet. Westerfeld just finished a trilogy, but I'm not sure if WWI is the sort of world-changing you meant. Does it have to be the protagonist's world? If not, Lindskold's Thirteen Orphans series would count. I'm pretty sure Jemisin is finished with her trilogy (third book is on my to-read pile), but that's a series of three related novels rather than one story in three volumes.

But it is still a very awkward and delicate thing to have the non-elite characters fall away in this book and have most of the significant action be taken by the royal heirs.

That bothered me in the first two books, which is why I had already decided not to read the third.


#6 :: Kate wrote on November 4, 2011 at 9:43 PM:

Right, Moshui, I have to get back to that.

Alison Sinclair? Hadn't heard of her work at all. What did you think of the first two?

I am chagrined that I forgot Jemisin's series, though I will point out that it's not in the epic fantasy subgenre.

And yeah, if even book 2 of this wasn't enough to your tastes on that, with the wider POV net, then you should definitely skip this one.


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