The Sacred Band is David Anthony Durham's third and ultimate novel in the Acacia trilogy. The book concludes the first epic Fantasy series for the author, who worked on several historic fictions before. He will return to this type of novel next but judging by the result of his fantasy project, I sincerely hope that he returns to the genre eventually.
As The Sacred Band begins, Queen Corinn bestrides the world as a result of her mastery of spells from the Book of Elenet. Her younger brother, Dariel, has been sent on a perilous mission to the Other Lands. And her sister, Mena, travels to the far north to face an invasion of the feared race of the Auldek. As their separate trajectories converge, a series of world-shaping, earth-shattering battles will force the surviving children of the Akaran dynasty to confront their fates head on--and right some ancient wrongs once and for all.
Unfortunately, I never reviewed The Other Lands and too much time has passed for me to write a fully detailed review giving it justice. However, I remembered enough of the tale to read the final book. Moreover, there's a useful "The story so far" at the beginning of the book to raise memories back to the surface.
These days, big epic series tend to stretch over several books even if it started with the genre's beloved trilogy in mind. Having an author who's able to restrict his number of thread and produce a strong feeling of things being set from beginning to end throughout the whole series is commendable. That doesn't mean that I don't like series like Erikson's Malazan tale (on the contrary) where the number of concurrent characters storyline is huge and not all of them resolve but if you take Wheel of Time, the narrative can get tangled or muddled at times...
Now, you might ask what this series is all about? The Sacred Band is the conclusion of the story of the Akaran siblings, the twenty second descendants of the dynasty and their close entourage. We followed them from their young age right to their adulthood where they try to redeem all the pernicious deeds made or sanctioned by their ancestors, each by distinctive methods and motives. Looking at the protagonists, I can't proclaim that their story is the stuff of legend by the way we usually assume that something is mythic but in an entirely original perspective, mostly so after discovering the outcome of their struggles.
The brothers, sisters and the people they are overseeing are dealing with the invasion of their lands by the mighty and immortal Auldeks, trying to maintain stability in their homeland with the help of the untrustworthy League and facing a group of all-powerful but tainted sorcerers from the past. From the start, in Acacia, I thought that the fundamental subject matter was that even with the best of intentions, it's almost impossible to right wrongs of this magnitude, while being a slave in a mine or the ruler of an empire. However, after three novels and quite an evolution from the initial situation, I have to admit that the author succeeded in proving me wrong and the 'classic' epithet I affixed to his novel ought to be removed when I take the whole series into consideration.
Even if it's the Akaran family who's driving the plot and creating the essence and most attractive aspects of the book, Durham managed to conceive some memorable side characters, in a book where the 'meta story' sometimes seems to override the cast. Examples: the insecure, cowardly and loyal Rialus Neptos who's giving an insight on things from quite a different perspective and the self-satisfied, dreamer and plotting Sire Dagon who's more typical as a merchantman but who's also bringing more depth to the narrative. However, for Melio the devoted guardsman, Barad the preacher, Devoth the ferocious chieftain, Kelis the brave steppe brother and Delivegu the spy, we're in grounds that are more familiar, straightforwardness and maybe even some stereotypical behaviors.
I won't comment on the principal players specific actions for fear of spoiling for those who haven't started the series. Suffice to say that Corinn, who wasn't the most compelling person to follow, finally became a character of exception. Her part and those of her kin, all under her direct or indirect influence transform the ideals of their family into commitment, from the peculiar defense of their empire to the newfound territories. There's a huge metamorphosis happening for her and fortunately, it's not coming out of nowhere. In this case, responsibility and dedication redirect the goal of the monarch to its roots.
After three novels full of lore revelation, landscape description and exploration, characteristic wildlife discovery and interaction between more than one race and people, it is clear that Durham spent time and worked hard on his world building. Alongside the simple but effective magic system taking its roots in a song derived, mostly inadequately by the users, from the words of the creator, the world feels rich and complete. Almost all the extent of the mysteries is finally explored and a feeling of closure spread over all the individual realities.
Alas, not everything is perfect in the Known World and the Other Lands. The second book was a bit of a deception for me because of the revelation of the mysteries surrounding the quota trade to the Lothan Aklun and the Auldeks. Aside from driving the plot slowly but still steadily forward, which was the book intention, it didn't really stand out until the last few chapters, even if there was action aplenty. In this last occurrence, the story move progressively in a more perceptible fashion but the pace is still kind of slow due to the presence once more of some overlong descriptions or character reflections.
To give a concise rundown, The Sacred Band is an epic story where morally mitigated characters blend with the common figure and some committed antagonists while the benevolence of humankind is pushed to the limit and where the greater good has firm roots and eventually succeeds in ways that cannot be fathomed. It's a complete tale of redemption over a generation of warfare where the battle is not always won with a sword or with dragons. A fit conclusion to a recommended series.
Technically, I'm not a huge fan of the Doubleday edition cover, mainly because of the lettering but I like the Mena on Elya versus an Auldek on a fréketes illustration for the French edition. You can take a look at the map of Durham's world here. The hardcover edition of the book stands at 576 pages. Dick Hill is the narrator and as usual, gives a splendid performance for 28 hours or so.
The Sacred Band review score :
Characterization............. 7.5 /10
World building............... 9 / 10
Magic system................. 8.5 / 10
Story.............................. 8 / 10
Writing........................... 8 / 10
Overall (not an average) 8 / 10
David Anthony Durham page