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I haven't finished The Highest Frontier yet, and don't want to say too much more about it until I do; so this week, a brief and inadequate note about a book I read before I started blogging my reading here.

In reviews of the first two volumes of David Anthony Durham's Acacia trilogy, I tried to use the way the series plays with epic fantasy conventions about geography -- maps -- as a lens for its political ambitions. In the front of The War With The Mein (2007; published as Acacia: The War with the Mein, but I prefer to call it by its subtitle for clarity) we are shown the spur of land called by its rulers The Known World; but it is conspicuously not the whole world, and indeed the second volume of trilogy took us to The Other Lands (2009), to reveal in full the web of power relations that sustain the world order. The Sacred Band, on the other hand, seems to be much more a novel about time, partly in a logistical sense -- the time taken for travel and communications, and how those things constrain events -- but more deeply in a historical sense. At the start of the novel the Akaran Empire in the Known World is facing invasion by the entire population of Auldek from the Other Lands; we learn that what motivates the Auldek is an attempt to escape their own history, to somehow start again. And we see the People, the slaves the Akarans left behind when they mobilised their nation to war, start to grapple with their own chance to start again, struggle to turn collective trauma into the basis of a nation. Within the Akaran Empire, meanwhile, much attention is paid to the matter of heirs, and their right to inherit the future of a people; and ancient sorcerers, with ancient grievances, return from exile as if to illustrate the impossibility of ever escaping from the past.

The sheer choreography of all these intimately linked threads is impressive and enjoyable enough. It occasionally feels slightly inadequate that in a series which examines how power lays itself into the world the four main viewpoint characters should all be the children of empire, and all be people of strong character. But it would be foolish to deny that they are enjoyable companions, fierce and joyful and noble and pragmatic in their turn; and other viewpoints do get a look in; and ultimately it is interesting to see how the Akaran children perceive their changing world. Because the great pleasure of The Sacred Band is that by the end the world is changing. The resolution of the Auldek invasion is bold and (in generic terms as much as any others) radical. My first reaction was that it still didn't go far enough, but on reflection I think it's judged right, and in fact even as it is risks being seen as more generous than might strictly be deserved. The Sacred Band is a rich, rewarding novel that is a patient, gracious reminder that we hold the world in trust, and must try to improve on it, generation to generation. I suspect there's only room for one epic fantasy on next year's Hugo ballot for Best Novel -- you know the one -- but I'd love to see this one up there as well.



Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
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20 Sep 2021

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