Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
As with my review of Acacia, this review is a literary minefield of uber-spoilers and links to TVTropes.
Acacia's ending left a sinister taste in the air. The shining prince, Aliver Akaran, is dead. In his place his sister Corinn has retaken the throne. Nine years pass, and Aaden, her son by Hanish Mein, is growing into a fine young prince at his mother's side. Corinn herself has been busy studying The Song of Elenet, a sorcerer's handbook of sorts. She's had to make hard decisions to stay in power and quell the unrest following the defeat of the Mein. It shows.
If the Corinn of latter Acacia days was reserved and calculating, The Other Lands sees her transform from High Queen to Knight Templar, and it's really scary. Corinn is desperate for a replacement for the mist, and she commissions an alternative drug consumed through wine. It's more addictive than mist and has fewer side-effects. Sounds perfect, but since almost everyone drinks wine, it would be really easy to get a significant proportion of the population addicted—oh, and no one bothered to test what happens when someone is deprived of the drug indefinitely. But that doesn't bother Corinn as much as the possibility that some people will disagree with her.
Don't let my flippant tone mislead you, however; Corrin is not merely a caricature of the queen who goes too far. We also get to see the woman behind the queen. Corinn regularly expresses her doubts—almost regrets—about how she has to behave in order to maintain control. Her only joys in life come from Aaden and learning sorcery. And this isn't entirely her fault: Corinn has trust issues. Her mother, to whom she was especially close, died. Her father died. Her first love died. She fell in love with her enemy, Hanish Mein, then learned he was planning to kill her (should have seen that one coming, Princess). In this book, she permits herself a flirtation with King Grae, only to learn that he's involved with some peasant rebels. I can't wait to find out how she reacts when she learns that her amateur attempts at sorcery are endangering Acacia more than the league or the Auldek!
Speaking of the Auldek, Dariel's voyage to the Other Lands is the other half of this book. It's not quite as interesting as Corinn's machinations, because it offers less of an emotional purchase for the reader. Dariel is the Akaran who gets the least amount of development, almost as if Durham doesn't know what to do with him. Corinn is the scheming queen; Mena is the badass but weary warrior; Dariel is … I'm not sure. So Durham, through Corinn, packs him off to the Other Lands where he gets imprisoned, tortured, tattooed, and then leads former quota slaves on a raid! It's somewhat convoluted … but I guess it works.
Despite my reservations about Dariel's characterization, I'm pleased that Durham took us over the Gray Slopes in the second book. We learn more about the nature of the Lothan Aklun and, by extension, sorcery. The relationship between the Auldek and Numrek, as well as the reason for the Numrek's arrival in the Known World, is made clear. And these two plot points are connected, for the Lothan Aklun have fundamentally altered Auldek and Numrek society. By making the Auldek immortal yet sterile through soul transfer, the Lothan Aklun warped this warrior culture into something stagnant, dependent upon them for quota slaves to function as "children" of a sort. With the Lothan Aklun gone and the Numrek returned with tidings of a land where Auldek will be fertile and a weak people is just waiting to be conquered . . . well, the Auldek jump at the chance for some real battle, and you can't blame them. Indeed, although the Auldek are brutal and brutish, there is something earnest about their motivations. As Rialos notes, who is to say that the Acacian time for dominance hasn't come to an end? Perhaps it is time for the Auldek to reign. This hearkens to the ambiguous nature of the Akaran versus Mein conflict in Acacia. Once again the Akarans represent "the good guys," but they don't do a very good job at it.
The League of Vessels shows its teeth in this book with its fait accompli massacre of the Lothan Aklun. Back when Leodan first mentioned them in Acacia, the words were alien, disturbing: "Lothan Aklun." I pictured them as sorcerers, yes, but as terrible and incomprehensible beings. Even after the League revealed the Lothan Aklun were to the Auldek as the League is to the Acacians, I held out hope. In a way, that hope remains intact, since we didn't actually get to meet the Lothan Aklun—they were all dead by the time we finally visit the Other Lands, so they remain a mystery. But I digress: after spending all of the last book cackling about how the league is the "real power" in the world, Sire Dagon finally has some actions to back up those empty words. At first, when it's apparent that Sire Neen overstepped himself, Sire Dagon's panicked reaction seems to indicate that the league will lose just as much in the coming war as will the Acacians. But the meeting of the Senior Council belies this emotional interpretation. The league is even more cold and calculating than Corinn, who uses sorcery to turn Mena's dragon's unborn babies into killers.
Oh yeah, in what is probably the most obvious embrace of a fantasy trope yet, Mena gets a pet dragon. The moment she was carried away by the dragon during their attempts to kill it, I called that it would become Mena's companion. And I hate the fact that Corinn's manipulations of Mena and the dragon tug at my heart. I don't want the baby dragons to be beasts of war! But it's no use. It may be the most dull and conventional subplot in the book, but it still snares me with pathos. Damn you, Durham!
That is ultimately the measure of the book, is it not? Durham might be playing with very conventional tropes here, but he plays with them well. And like its predecessor, The Other Lands knows when to avert the tropes rather than embrace them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this book is better than Acacia. It does exactly what the second book in a trilogy must accomplish: it further develops the characters, answers questions raised in the first book, and raises new questions. Above all, The Other Lands raises the stakes. There's nothing like that image of an unstoppable Auldek army or the Santoth's warning of cracks in the fabric of reality to cause a metaphorical shiver or two in the reader's spine. And I'm genuinely uncertain how the trilogy will resolve these conflicts: while it's obvious that the Auldeks cannot win, that doesn't imply an Akaran victory.
That's what I like about this trilogy. Durham is writing a historical epic. It's set in a world with magic, soul-transfer devices, and fantastical animals . . . but people are still people, and they're still greedy for glory and power. Like many other great fantasy authors (you know who I'm talking about), Durham balances epic fantasy with epic history to give us something familiar yet much more fulfilling than the bland "farmboy saves the world" fast-food fantasy that codifies the cliché.
For those who couldn't finish Acacia, whether it's Durham's expository style or just a somewhat lagging plot, this is one of those rare occasions where I endorse starting the series with the second book. The Other Lands doesn't quite "stand alone" in a strict sense; after all, it ends on a very dramatic cliffhanger. However, it is separated from the first novel by nine years, and the recap at the beginning of this book has everything you really need to know about what happened in Acacia. So in that respect, The Other Lands is the perfect opportunity to give David Anthony Durham's trilogy a second chance. And if ever there were a trilogy deserving of one, this is it.