Saturday, October 13, 2007

Acacia, by David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham
Doubleday: 2007

Historical Fiction author David Anthony Durham turns to fantasy with his fourth book Acacia: The War With the Mein. Acacia seems to be one of those books which has garnered quite a bit of praise but is only gradually working its way into the consciousness of fantasy readers. Acacia is almost a debut novel in the sense that David Anthony Durham is a name that was not very well known in fantasy circles. After Acacia if Durham isn't well known, he should be.

Acacia opens with a short first chapter featuring an assassin making his way out of the frozen north to the island city / state / empire of Acacia with a mission to kill the king, Leodan Akaran, and begin to set his people, the Mein, free from the yoke of the Acacians.

After this first chapter David Anthony Durham begins to introduce us to the principal characters of the story, Leodan's four children: Aliver (the heir), Corinn, Mena, and Dariel. Through particular viewpoint chapters for each of the children we get a sense of who they are and who they want to be, and perhaps who they could be. During these opening chapters and throughout the novel Durham provides a wealth of detail about the setting, the political situation, the motivations of characters, the clothing, the weaponry, the culture, and pretty much anything that can be described. Normally this is what we call overkill and too much exposition and description. Somehow David Anthony Durham gracefully moves beyond that sense of too much description holding the story back and that detail Durham provides only enriches the tapestry that is Acacia. Yes, the pace of Acacia is a bit slower than the average epic fantasy, but Acacia is far from your average epic fantasy.

The opening chapters of Acacia serve to set the table for the feast which is to come. Acacia is not a simple tale of "good guys" versus "bad guys" and while we suspect that the assassin will be at least partially successful, we do not quite know what is to come. Sure, the dust jacket for the novel reveals this little tidbit:
"On his deathbed, Leodan puts into play a plan to allow his children to escape, each to his or her own separate destiny. And so his children begin a quest to avenge their father's death and restore the Acacian empire - this time on the basis of universal freedom."
Yet, this does not capture what David Anthony Durham does here at all. Those are the facts of the novel, but not the truth. The truth is that initially we think that all that Durham is doing with Acacia is flipping the racial expectations by making the Akarans dark skinned and the Mein the white people. In part, perhaps this is true, but that would be far too simple a thing to do. Far too "black and white". Acacia lives in shades of grey. Yes, the Akaran children are to be our "heroes", but Acacia is not a pure empire. There are deeply hidden secrets behind their power, about the drugs poisoning the land, about the "Quota", about their hold on Empire. The Mein are not the simple barbarian hordes that are assumed in the opening chapters. They have culture, and they have reasons for doing what they are doing...legitimate reasons.

That "quest to avenge their father's death"? Even that is not so simple. The children are scattered to the wind and years later have their own lives and desires in exile. Acacia is not a simple revenge quest.

So. What, then, is Acacia?

It's a damn fine novel. It is a richly complex story of revenge, political reality, overcoming and understanding the lies of history, a coming of age story, an epic fantasy, at times a political thriller, a world with a long and complicated history, a novel where the reader's expectations are exceeded and where what we get isn't what we think we are looking for. At nearly every turn David Anthony Durham confounds our understanding of what is going on and what he is going to do next. There are hints of fantasy archetypes in the characters, but the motivations that Durham brings to the table makes these characters three dimensional players rather than two dimensional cut outs.

By this point in the review it should be clear that I am deeply impressed with Acacia and that I admire the craftsmanship of the novel. While I would like to say that Acacia is a novel for everyone, for all fans of good fiction and good fantasy, I suspect that some readers will be turned off by the deliberate pace of the novel. Where I found a novel like The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams to utterly drag due to the weight of the description, especially in the opening two hundred pages, I did not get this from Acacia. The description of Acacia improves the novel, it feels necessary and develops the characters and the setting. Why this should work with one novel and fail in another is beyond me, and I am not sure I am able to explain exactly why, but the description here is a good thing. The style of the novel, however, does require that Acacia be read slowly, to drink in the richness of this epic fantasy.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Very seldom do I get impatient for a subsequent volume in a fantasy series. I know that it will come out when it comes out and there are plenty of books to be read. But with Acacia and how David Anthony Durham both told a complete story as well as opened up his world for new stories with just a couple of touches and gentle twists, I would really like to know what happens next and to sink into another 500 pages of Acacian storytelling.

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