The Sacred Band and the Thoughts of a Beta Reader

David Anthony Durham

Yes, I am a beta reader. Yes, I’m a friend of David Anthony Durham’s. And, yes, this isn’t a standard review of The Sacred Band, the last book in the Acacia series. Writing a review under these circumstances didn’t seem like the right course to take. However, because I love the book and the series, I wanted to write something that in some way addressed my views and experiences with the series since The Sacred Band was published on October 4, 2011.

The best thing about being a beta reader is that it gave me a unique perspective on the final version of the book that I wouldn’t have experienced any other way. In addition to getting that sneak peek, it was a sincere honor to have one of my mentors ask me to be a beta reader for his upcoming novel–not to mention a little terrifying. After all we’re talking about David Anthony Durham, who won the Malcolm C. Braly Award for Fiction, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award, and the John W. Campbell Award–just to name a few of his honors. So, before digging into The Sacred Band, I reread the first two books in the series, Acacia and The Other Lands, in order to make sure that the story was fresh in my mind.

For those of you who haven’t yet read the Acacia series by David Anthony Durham, open your eReader, head to your local bookstore or go to the library and check out Acacia. Now. I really mean right now. It’s a fantastic epic fantasy series that rivals anything from Tolkien, Martin, or Brooks.

A master of his craft, Durham draws upon the best that the fantasy tradition has to offer, combing it with his talent for writing historical fiction that doesn’t shy away from addressing social topics that that are as significant today as they were a hundred years ago or will be a hundred years from now. Reading the Acacia series is like reading an exciting and captivating history of a real place, told from the point of views of real people, and depicting events that feel as if they happened in the real world with a dash of magic. This is what first drew me to the series. However, what kept me reading was Durham’s superb writing style and sense of story that allows him to deftly maneuver from plot to subplot, from character to conflict, and from anticipation to delivery.

The Sacred Band hits the ground running with Queen Corinn’s preparation for battle with the Numrek. Now, there is a fight scene for the ages! Can’t say more. Spoilers. Durham sets the stakes high from the start and then methodically drives each plot forward through character choices that are meaningful and that produce interactions that keep the reader, turning page after page to see … what … happens … next! … until the last page is turned.

Taking on a series the size and scope of Acacia is a daunting task, but finishing it in only three books and making the story feel whole and complete is a sign of mastery over both fiction and form for any writer. What’s most remarkable is that this is Durham’s first fantasy series, and it includes the novel for which he won the John W. Campbell Award in 2009.

So, what does all of this have to do with being a beta reader for The Sacred Band? Well, it’s my special way of saying that I am extremely proud of David Anthony Durham, his Acacia series, and The Sacred Band. These are books that any fantasy reader will love and cherish.

It was a pleasure to comb through The Sacred Band, noting little things like the occasional typo to the lack of scents in a scene that needed some specific smells or finding an opportunity to foreshadow an upcoming choice that a character will make, or catching a timing issue or a character that has been absent for too long. When a writer is dealing with a series that is thousands of pages long, it is impossible to keep every detail in mind, and it can never hurt to get a little help from your friends. Enter the beta reader.

It’s not the job of a beta reader to edit or revise a manuscript. Rather it is our duty to call out the things that will help to create a finished book that reflects the author’s vision, allowing him to make informed editing decisions to elicit the effect he wants, and to let him know what is working especially well in the story. It’s the beta reader’s job to find those nitpicky little things that are easy for a writer to miss, but will be spotted by fans who tear through the novel hungry to consume every detail possible about the Known World, the Other Lands, and the Akaran children as well as the various plots, characters, and schemes that keep readers wanting more!

Looking back over my experience with Acacia, The Other Lands, and The Sacred Band, I am most surprised to find that my favorite character in the series changed so dramatically and multiple times. First, it was Dariel who captured my attention—a young curious and cunning boy who grew into an absolutely engaging man. Then, it was Mena who caught my eye, trading the role of princess for that of priestess before evolving into the physical aspect of a regional goddess known as Maben on Earth. From there Mena, powerful and smart, grew into her role of warrior princess.

I found Corinn to be an interesting character caught in difficult circumstances within the first two books of the Acacia series, but she didn’t hold the same intensity of spirit that Dariel and Mena carried. I can’t tell you when that changed. However, the change was slow, imperceptible at first, but then Corinn transformed, growing into the shining star of the series. Her character development is significant and she fully embraces the role of one of the most powerful female characters in fantasy fiction.

Of all the characters, Corinn gained and lost the most, her point of view and her desires evolved the furthest, and she made the most horrible mistakes and sacrifices. Through it all, she never lost her humanity. She clung to what it meant to be human, to be a woman, to be a mother, and to be Queen. At the end of the series, at the end of The Sacred Band, it is she who will burry your heart in tears. I would not be surprised if Queen Corinn becomes one of the legendary figures within the fantasy genre and one of the powerful women that we look toward as an example of how female characters in fantasy fiction can  be done right, and be done well.

The Sacred Band is meant to be read and David Anthony Durham is a writer to follow. Visit David online at his website and his blog. You can also read an excerpt from The Sacred Band.

About Erin Underwood

BIO: Erin Underwood is the senior event content producer for MIT Technology Review’s emerging technology events. On the side, she reads, writes, and edits SF.
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3 Responses to The Sacred Band and the Thoughts of a Beta Reader

  1. Well, you’ve sold me! I love high/epic fantasy and have been looking for the new series to fall in love with, post Fire and Ice.

    I’m also a beta reader for a few author friends of mine, and it’s always a thrill to me to read the finished, published manuscript to see what changes of mine they might have included, or what other changes overall they made.


    • Hi Lori, let me know how you like it. I’ve been getting burned out on reading epic fantasy series lately, but Acacia was so different….and yet it hit all of the sweet spots that an epic fantasy needs to hit. I highly recommend it. 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for this, Erin. It was truly inspiring, and I will start on David’s books.

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