The knock against heroic fantasy is that much of it devolves into a simplistic story of good vs. evil set against a backdrop of pale reflections of feudal Europe. But the best examples, like the grandly sprawling Acacia trilogy by David Anthony Durham, serve as a powerful rebuttal of this criticism. His final volume, “The Sacred Band” — following “Acacia” (2007) and “The Other Lands” (2009) — provides a deeply satisfying conclusion to an ethnically diverse series in which Durham has proved just as comfortable exploring the uses of power as conjuring up strange magic.
Acacia is part of the Known World, existing between northern aggressors and southern sorcerers. At the center of a story covering more than a decade stand four heirs to the legacy of murdered Acacian emperor Leodan Akaran: the idealistic Aliver; the strong-willed Corinn, now queen of the realm; the eventually battle-tested Mena; and Dariel, who changes during the course of the novels from a brigand to a man with a fierce moral core.
By the time of “The Sacred Band,” Queen Corinn has restored the Akaran dynasty by wielding terrible magic over the Known World and its many races. Her younger brother Dariel continues his travels through the dangerous Other Lands, having become a convert to the cause of freeing slaves. His many adventures, including exploration of a mysterious abandoned city, evoke the best of classic swords-and-sorcery. Meanwhile, fans of fantasy battles will enjoy following Mena as she heads north with an army to repulse the primary threat to Acacia, the semi- immortal Auldek people. A midair fight between Mena’s bird-dragon and another creature also results in a breathless and riveting scene.
Queen Corinn, however, occupies the center of “The Sacred Band.” She’s a frightening and complex woman. While quelling an uprising, she makes one man “erupt with maggots that consumed his living flesh.” She is also haunted by dreams of a “vague, writhing, wormlike enormity,” and in a truly chilling scene, she fights off a curse that eats into her own flesh. Readers may not always like her, but they will never forget her.
As a final confrontation between the Acacians and the Auldek falls into place, Durham knows better than to give readers an entirely happy ending. Aliver comes to the fore in a scene that evokes the spirit world; Dariel fulfills his destiny; and a sea serpent’s maw features prominently in some characters’ fate. Indeed, it is entirely to Durham’s credit that near the very end of this excellent trilogy a character can say, “You loved life and feared death and that is what living is!” without sounding foolish or melodramatic.
VanderMeer’s most recent book, co-edited with his wife, Ann, is “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.”
THE SACRED BAND
Book III of the Acacia Trilogy
By David Anthony Durham
Doubleday. 559 pp. $28.95