The OF Blog: David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands

Monday, September 21, 2009

David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands

In the offices that had once been her father's, Queen Corinn Akaran bent over her desk, arms spread wide and palms pressed against the smooth grain of the polished hardwood. The flared sleeves of her gown formed an enclosure of sorts, a screen that shielded the document from view on two sides. She was alone in her offices, but she knew - better than anyone else in the palace - that until she had eyes in the back of her head she could not trust that she was ever as unaccompanied as she believed herself to be. She favored this posture when she wished to focus her attention on a particular document, above which she would hang like a falcon poised to drop on a field mouse far below.


If all the scheming complexity of her position had etched fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, so be it. If she was fuller in the hips and chest than she had been before childbirth, what did that matter? If she walked more on her heels and less on the eager balls of her feet, that was as it should be. She had been lovely as a girl, but she knew that there were other ways to be lovely as a woman. She was not yet the age her mother was in her memories, which meant she had not reached the age to measure herself against her understanding of beauty. And of mortality. That day would come, she knew, but not just yet. (pp. 29-30)
Reviewing middle volumes of a multi-volume work is very tricky. There really isn't a true "beginning" to the novel and there certainly will be no real conclusion as well. To evaluate a middle volume such as David Anthony Durham's second novel in his Acacia trilogy, The Other Lands (September 2009), perhaps it might be best to look at how it builds upon developments begun in The War with the Mein and to see how the two books complement each other, rather than trying to weigh The Other Lands' merits in a vacuum.

Character development is a good place to begin this evaluation. In my review of The War with the Mein (2007), I cited a passage where the young Princess Corinn is mourning the impending loss of her mother to a deadly illness. There, she was conflicted, noting the similarities between her and her mother, while also worrying about the ravages of mortality. Compare that with the passage I quoted at the top. Corinn, now almost twenty years older, is more confident, but yet there is still that nagging insecurity that is represented in the form of her comparisons of herself with memories of her mother. In many ways, these two short passages from the two novels give valuable insight into one of the more complex and interesting characters of this series.

The other characters also benefit from increased time delving into their character developments over the nine-year span between the events of The War with the Mein and The Other Lands. Corinn's younger sister, Mena, and brother, Dariel, each are much fuller, dynamic characters than they were in the first novel. Each has conflicts arising from their actions nine years before. Mena is torn between her gentle nature and her capability to be fierce, as the avatar of the wrath goddess Maeben. Dariel suffers constantly from his order that his brother Alavar's killer be surrounded and slaughtered after a duel between the Meinish and Acacian army leaders ends with Alavar's death. Mena and Dariel's story arcs not only highlight these tensions within them, but they are reflected on a grander scale in the plot dynamics of the novel.

The Known Lands, or the continent that the Acacian Empire mostly controls, is still reeling from the events of the past 18 years. Corinn is a shrewd ruler, but the people are beginning to grumble, especially since she has doubled the Quota of children sent via the League to the mysterious Lothun Aklan and the Auldek magicians east across the Grey Slopes. More and more supplies of the drug Mist are distributed to quell the unrest, but still things continue to boil over in the Known Lands, as each natural (and unnatural) setback is blamed upon the young queen. And while Corinn occupies herself with the magic book she discovered at the end of the first novel, it appears the threat from the East is only looming larger.

If one compares the plots and thematic developments of the two novels, a certain mirroring can be discerned. Alavar's more idealistic, egalitarian view of governance is mirrored in his sister Corinn's pragmatic rule that continues to reinforce the inequalities that the minor, "salt of the earth" characters of the two novels note in their brief PoV chapters. The combination of power lust and ancestor reverence that the Mein displayed in the first novel finds certain parallels with the Auldek of the Other Lands. But what dominates large portions of The Other Lands, whether the action be set in Acacia, in the wilds with Mena, or (later) in the Other Lands with Dariel, is the desire for change. The old systems, whether they be magical (Santoth, Lothun Aklan), commercial (the League, Quota), military (Numrek, various Acacian dependencis), or social (Auldek, the people in the Known Lands subjugated to the Quota), are all on the verge of collapse. The chains of inhumane inequality are being rattled and it appears each link is much more brittle than suspected.

This exploration of the desire for equality and freedom, referenced several times by the royal survivors in the form of Alavar's apparently stillborn movement (and then explicitly in a surprising scene at the end of the novel) is one of two themes that I believe Durham develops well here. He avoids becoming "preachy," in that there are several facets presented and the reader is never allowed to see any side (except perhaps for one revealed in the second part of the novel) as being all or even mostly "in the right." Yet Durham also manages to avoid the trap of relying too much upon relativism. While no side is pure white and light, one group certainly is darker and less good than the other. Which side that is, however, depends on how one interprets events.

The second great theme of The Other Lands concerns itself with the interconnections of events and actions. Everything in this novel and its predecessor has consequences, some of them dire and often unexpected. Demonstrated first with the corrupted magic of the Santoth and then later with the consequences of the Quota, the novel's plot is full of examples of how events are connected in ways that might surprise the reader if that reader has not paid close attention to the seemingly minor details of what Mist is, how the League and the Lothun Aklan conducted their trade, why magic practice fell out of use in the Known Lands almost 20 generations ago, and so forth.

The writing here is of a similar quality to the first novel. Some readers may become impatient with Durham's descriptive prose, but I found it (as I did with the first novel) to convey the important elements of the narrative quickly, with just enough attention to detail to spark interest, but without the turgidity that sometimes can set in when authors reach almost pornographic levels of detail about what a character is thinking or what people are wearing or eating at feasts. Sometimes, withheld detail and a more "pan out" scene setting serves to create a better narrative perspective than too much of a focus on the "showing" aspects of a narrative. Durham balances the dialogue and the narrative "telling" quite adroitly here and the story flowed at a nice, even pace throughout the novel.

On the whole, there are no resolutions to be found in The Other Lands, only more questions raised. But what else would a reader expect from a middle volume? The plot was advanced in interesting directions, the characters developed nicely, and there are hints of some interesting events on the horizon. All in all, The Other Lands complements and reinforces the qualities of The War with the Mein and it leaves me eager to read the concluding volume. This certainly was one of the better epic fantasy volumes that I've read this year. Highly recommended.


Unknown said...

Good review, Larry. I really enjoyed The War With the Mein, and am looking forward to reading this.

Really good epic fantasy that manages to balance plot movement with character development and interesting ideas is rare - most is too short on the last two, and some too muddled on the first - is rare. I finished a reread of Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy and was reminded of just how good she is at both. I think Durham's up there with her, although they're obviously quite different writers: I can't think of too many others.

Larry Nolen said...

Glad you enjoyed the review, Eddie and hopefully you'll enjoy the book even more!

I agree that it's uncommon to find epic fantasies that balance well the plot and character developments and I think that's why Durham's trilogy is one of the few recent epic fantasy series that has kept my interest.

Liviu said...

I find myself agreeing with much of your review but still not liking this series as *I should*.

I liked Other Lands better than Acacia overall, mainly because it avoided the first 200 or so very disjointed pages from there and there was overall more balance in the way the threads are handled, but I still thought it had "wave hand fantasy stuff" that was risible especially for a novel of its ambition - without spoilers the Lothar Aklun thing is one such example that just borders on the "suspension of disbelief" - while it tried to bring too much "mainstream like" psychological insight for the core fantasy novel it wants to be.

In a sense if I want to read fantasy, I'd rather read that, if I want to read mainstream, I'd rather read that and the mixture here while ambitious, works only to some extent for me. Magic secondary world + larger than life characters + deep psychological insight *may work* but here I think the execution is only partly successful

I am still interested in the next volume of course.

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