Old wars are re-fought, new alliances and conflicts arise in the middle volume of a fantasy trilogy set in the embattled land that calls itself the Known World.
Acacia (2007) chronicled the clouded history of an empire that delivers some of its children to slavery in “the Other Lands” in exchange for money and a drug that keeps Acacia’s subjects quiescent. King Leodan’s losing battle against multiple enemies forced him to send his four children toward safety in four different destinations. As this volume opens, the king’s eldest daughter Corinn rules as his successor, having dispatched the northern chieftain who invaded Leodan’s palace and (temporarily) won her love. Younger brother Aliver died in battle, but surviving siblings Dariel and Mena have become feared warriors, fighting the transfigured Santoth (exiled prophets who have shape-shifted alarmingly), the itinerant Lothan Aklun (slaves empowered by their takeover of the drug trade) and the opportunistic seagoing brigands of the League of Vessels. This dauntingly complicated and frequently puzzling narrative also includes the stories of such intriguing secondary characters as revolutionary leader Barad the Lesser; Corinn’s Mr. Fixit assassin Delivegu; and an exiled, intuitively all-knowing beauty named Mor, of royal or perhaps even higher lineage. Moving into fantasy after three well received historical novels, Durham (Pride of Carthage, 2005, etc.) handles his many-leveled plot with impressive thoughtfulness; racial stereotyping, exploitation of defenseless populations and tribal enmity are among the subjects whose continued relevance—for the novel’s characters and its readers—becomes increasingly evident. When Corinn, a superbly complex character quite wonderfully drawn, announces that “no more children of the Known Word will be sent to the Other Lands,” it’s an emancipation proclamation that may have come too late to avert what the closing pages suggest could become a global war.
Desperately needs an annotated list of characters and a detailed glossary distinguishing various tribes and factions. But little else is missing from this ambitious work, which boggles the mind and transcends genre.