Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's sailing off the map: A Review of The Sacred Band

Yesterday, David Anthony Durham posted that "progressive" might be a good way to describe the ending of The Sacred Band, the final novel of his Acacia trilogy.  Yesterday, I hadn't finished the book, so I had no idea what he was talking about.

But last night, I finished it, and I would have to agree.  "Progressive" is definitely a good word to describe The Sacred Band.  But I would add something to that.  You see, when I finished the novel, "progressive" wasn't the first word that sprung to mind; it was only when I went back and reread Durham's post that I remembered that he had described the novel this way.  And the reason I didn't jump to think of the novel as progressive was because the ending just made so much sense.  It didn't wave flags and say, "Look at me!  Look how progressive I am!  Look at all the ways that I'm different!"

Rather, it was an ending that fit with the characters and their motivations, and that resolved the multiple threads of the narrative in a way that was satisfying for each.  And while I value the progressive aspect of the ending quite a bit, it was this sense of completeness, of fullness that made the ending so satisfying to read. [mild plot spoilers after the jump]

In addition to the satisfying ending, what I most appreciated about The Sacred Band was its treatment of race and racial identity.  In the novel, Dariel Akaran, the youngest son of the former Acacian king, travels to the Other Lands, now named Ushen Brae, and discovers the people who had, as children, been sent off as quota slaves in exchange for the drug called mist.  Even in the very act of claiming a name of its own choosing, the land of Ushen Brae rejects the structures of colonial rule and asserts its own agency.  Dariel discovers that many of the quota slaves have been altered to look like the totem animals of the Auldek clans to which they are enslaved; while the quota slaves came from all over the empire, their previous racial differences were erased as a result of their enslavement to the Auldeks.  As Dariel says to them, "You've all forgotten the racial differences that mean so much in my country...To you it doesn't matter if you're Bethuni or Candovian, Meinish or Talayan or Senivalian.  It doesn't matter if your skin is black or brown or pale as milk.  You've left those things behind, because you all came here united in bondage."  Especially in a genre in which race is a fixed, static category, this kind of complexity is challenging, intriguing, and refreshing.

The portrayal of race is one similarity that I saw with N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms--another connection was the way both works contain characters who possess more than one soul.  It made me wonder if there was some sort of connection--does an understanding of identity more fluid than "one soul, one body" somehow facilitate a more fluid understanding of racial identity, or vice versa?  This is another facet of the book that I really enjoyed--although the plot was satisfyingly resolved at the end of The Sacred Band, the questions introduced by the narrative are complex and not easily answered, leading to a series that lingers with me long after I've closed the final cover. 

I continue to be impressed by the way that Durham uses narrative structure to create certain effects for the reader.  One chapter tells of particularly chaotic events, which include a coronation being interrupted, a ghost that only two people can see, and Queen Corinn at the center of it all.  The logical choice for point of view in this scene (from my perspective, at least) would be Corinn--since she is at the center of the action, it makes sense for her to tell the story.  But instead, Durham tells this part of the story from the perspective of the one other person in the room who can see the ghost, and therefore, sees everything that is going on, but from an outsider's perspective.  Because of his position outside the action, this character offers no hope of influencing the events of the chapter, as Corinn would have done, and so he is able to convey the chaos and loss of control in this scene much more effectively than Corinn would have done.  It's a simple choice, but again, it's one that had a profound impact on how I read this scene.

My one complaint about The Sacred Band is that, like I wrote earlier, there was too much going on for me to keep it all straight--an effect that was heightened in this third installment of the trilogy because of the way the map kept expanding, and new races and plotlines filled the new areas of the map, in addition to the threads that already existed.  But I can't complain about this too much; overall, I loved the complexity in structure, theme, and plot development.  It made for a wonderfully fun, often surprising, but never forced reading experience that I hope others will see as progressive as well, since Durham's voice is one that epic fantasy needs.

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