The Other Lands by David Anthony Durham
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
11 January 2010
The world is a little clearer now, here in the thick of the complex, confident second volume of David Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy. We may be able to work out where things are going. The map at the front of the book, which used to show only the spur of land arrogantly called the Known World by its residents, now sprawls westwards, across the ocean of the Gray Slopes to the other land we learn to call Ushen Brae. The mist, the drug that for centuries kept the populace of the Known World in a stupor even as their children were taken as quota for trade, is gone. And many of the characters (along with any readers who didn't before) can finally recognize exactly how great an opportunity was missed when prince Aliver Akaran died, and his revolution—against the Mein who had taken the Akaran throne, yes, but more importantly against the whole order of the Known World—failed.
"Do you ever wonder what the world would be like if Aliver had lived?" Melio asked.
"Of course," Mena said. "You know we all do."
[. . .]
"What if he really had abolished the quota trade? What if he had really freed all the races to govern themselves? Can you imagine that? I know it would be a grand confusion in some ways, but it might have been beautiful." (p. 66)
To Corinn Akaran—now a cold Queen, but still sister of Aliver, and warrior Mena, and spirited Dariel—this is foolishness. Her siblings think the dream of a more egalitarian world died with Aliver, and they mourn both it and him. They do not, Corinn thinks, fully understand "the dangers of a sober populace." None of the Akarans are aware that a mine worker known as Barad the Lesser continues to navigate by Aliver's dream, that he has brought together representatives of all the peoples of the Empire in an organisation known as the Kindred, and that they are moving towards revolution. But Corinn knows that in the absence of mist, such unrest is a possibility that cannot be ignored, and she considers it a catastrophe in waiting. The people cannot be trusted to rule themselves! They will quickly succumb to pettiness and shortsightedness. And without the quota trade—the chain that binds the Akaran Empire to the League of Vessels, to the mysterious Lothan Aklun and the Auldek in Ushen Brae—everything will collapse. No, Corinn's hand is needed on the tiller to steer a safer course, one chosen "with her brain, not her emotions" (p. 91). One that will ensure security and, perhaps, by the time her son is old enough to take her place, a peace that does not look so much like war.
Carefully, deliberately, Durham surveys the problems facing Corinn, and in the process makes The Other Lands a more complete tapestry than its predecessor, and much the better novel for it. The Akaran children remain the most prominent characters, but a number of voices absent from The War with the Mein (2007)—whose absence in some ways defined the wrongness of the world Durham is exploring—are present here, and brought vigorously to life. By and large these new voices know where they want the world to go, and speak with conviction. After so much emphasis on courtly dealings and the doings of royalty, for instance, there is a genuine thrill to be had in listening to Barad outlining the Kindred's plan, while sounding like he's wandered in from another novel entirely: "The rising will not be one of massed armies standing behind banners," he insists. "It will be a unity of action among the common people. They will rise. They will all put down their tools and demand that the world be remade" (p. 110). And if there were any doubt about the seriousness with which Durham takes this element of his story, it is put to rest when Barad's words are echoed, later in the book and a continent away, by Mor, a quota slave and resistance fighter: "We fight for all the quota slaves, even those who harm us, and especially those too numb and beaten down to understand their plight. Privileged or shackled, it doesn't matter. We are all the People, and none of us are free" (p. 348). Durham is too much of a political realist to make things easy for either of these characters, but their desire for social justice is clearly enough stated to generate real excitement about where this trilogy might end up and, more importantly, how it will get there. If The War with the Mein established anything, it's that a change in government is not enough; what needs to be changed are the institutionalised power structures supporting the government. That the People and the Kindred are both multiracial organisations in a world otherwise fractured along racial lines is perhaps all the evidence we need to divine where Durham's sympathies lie; whether he is bold enough to allow them to achieve their goals through reform, rather than a more traditional apocalyptic restart, remains to be seen.
To pick out this particular thread of The Other Lands for attention is perhaps to give the impression that Durham somehow neglects the Big Story pleasures of the form he's chosen to work in, when the truth is very far from the case. The Other Lands is a more confident, more exuberant, and more unusual epic fantasy than The War with the Mein, but loses none of its predecessor's scope or familiar pleasures. Magic—God Talk, known as The Giver's Tongue—has reentered the world in the wake of Aliver's war, but not as a force for good. The land of the Known World is sick; climatic patterns have shifted, leaving wells to run dry and crops to fail. Corinn, who has been studying the Giver's Tongue, can address some of the problems, but it's obvious such interventions will not be without consequence. And corrupted animals known as foulthings roam the land, giving Durham the opportunity to demonstrate a previously only hinted-at talent for monster creation: "It was a flippered, scaled mountain [. . .] like no fish but with parts of fish in it, like no worm and yet wormlike in the grotesque rolling convulsions that propelled it forward" (p. 96). Mena is assigned to hunt down and kill the foulthings, a thread that is not knit as tightly into the rest of the novel as it might be, which is perhaps why her agonising over her roles as warrior, wife and (potential), mother never quite becomes as essential as other characters' crises of direction. But if counterpoint her story must be, a very effective counterpoint it is, in the early stages providing some properly thrilling action sequences to intersperse the more sedate plot threads elsewhere, and latterly providing moments of joy and grace to balance some tremendously bleak developments. And it seems clear that Mena's role in Book Three will be more central.
Meanwhile, Corinn sends Dariel as her representative on a League mission to Ushen Brae, intended to shore up the quota trade. The mystery surrounding the inhabitants of the Other Lands is one of the engines driving The Other Lands, and it's not necessary to reveal much of what Dariel finds in this review. Suffice to say that the journey, across the treacherous Gray Slopes and to the islands of the mysterious Lothan Aklun, and then beyond, is impressive in part for its selectivity: Durham is not one to narrate every day of his characters' lives, and here retains his ability to pick the right moments of story to focus on. (Indeed, he may even have become better at it: this novel is a good couple of hundred pages shorter than its predecessor, and no worse for that.) Much about the Lothan Aklun remains a mystery at the close of the novel—in a way that I suspect will dovetail in Book Three with revelations about Corinn's use of the Giver's Tongue—but the Auldek are more thoroughly explored.
In some ways they are the inevitable escalation required of a fantasy trilogy. More than once we are told their brute physicality and martial prowess makes the Numrek, the savage fighters who had spearheaded Hanish Mein's assault at the start of The War with the Mein, look pathetic; as treachery and revelation steer the Auldek towards a full-scale invasion of the Known World, we are to understand they are the greatest threat the Acacian Empire has ever faced. But they are also constructed as a vivid culture in their own right, one that negotiates great contrasts—beauty and ugliness, human and animal—and in doing so, more than any of the societies Durham has depicted in the Known World, challenge our ability to accept them as fully human. Such an edge stops The Other Lands from becoming too consoling, from making its world too easy to accept as allegorical; as does the occasional reminder that, for all Barad and Mor's aspirations, in this full-fantasy world blood sometimes does have meaning.
More than in The War with the Mein, Durham is able to unpack the complexities of his world for his characters—or at least, for Dariel and his companions—at the same speed as for us. The idealistic young prince, in particular, is unhappy with the state of things, and hungry for knowledge as a result. An innocent abroad, and desperate to see. "I know," he explains, "that I have walked the world half blind. That was the way of my people, but it doesn't have to continue" (p. 279). But in The Other Lands the challenge is not—as it was in The War with the Mein—simply to see the world clearly. The challenge is to see the world clearly and then navigate it. For Dariel that means finding a just cause to fight for; for Mena it means balancing competing priorities and desires; for Corinn it means trying to hold the Acacian Empire together with her bare hands, although matters may already be beyond her control. The final chapter of The Other Lands, in which Corinn takes several actions that she hopes will prove decisive, is unutterably sad and deeply scary in about equal measure, not least (I think) for how she hopes to confuse the relative importance of a message and a man.
That the conclusion of a half-book (The War with the Mein stood relatively well alone, at least if you didn't look too closely, but there's no pretense that The Other Lands is a whole story) is so affecting has to do with Durham's attentiveness to the individuality of his characters, and his willingness to allow events to take their time. But excellence in a book of this kind has as much to do with sweep as with detail, so it's at least as important to say that most of this book offers the pleasure of feeling irresistably right, both for the story and for the argument of the story. Acacia is an epic not in thrall to its ancestors; its elaborations feel both organic and fresh, even when they (in most cases, superficially) conform to familiar templates. I don't doubt that David Anthony Durham knows where he's going; and I think he's going somewhere interesting.