Fantasy Book Critic

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"Acacia" by David Anthony Durham

Posted by cervantor on PM000000120000000030 1, 2008

Preorder “Acacia” via Doubleday Books HERE
Acacia’sRelease Date: June 12, 2007 for North America

With his first three novels, the multiple award-winning “Gabriel’s Story” (2001), 2002’s “Walk Through Darkness” and the acclaimed “Pride of Carthage”, which brings to life Hannibal’s famous victory over the Romans in Northern Italy, writer David Anthony Durham has established himself as a powerful voice in the world of historical fiction. With “Acacia – Book One: The War With the Mein”, David Anthony Durham tries his hand at speculative fiction and delivers a marvelous new offering that could do the same for him in the world of epic fantasy.

First off, I just want to address the issue of spoilers that has become sort of a hot topic with what is revealed on the book’s cover and the various advance reviews now out. Myself, I try to avoid any reviews of books that I plan on reviewing, and rarely, if ever, read the synopsis on a cover, since I like to go into a novel with as little information or preconceptions as possible. So it was with “Acacia”. Now that I’ve seen what’s written on the cover, I can see why there might be complaints since certain plot details are out in the open. If you don’t want to hear about these developments, then I suggest you skip this paragraph and continue on with the rest of the review, which I will try to keep as spoiler-free as possible. So, final warning… In short, an exiled race of people known as the Mein are planning to wage war against the Acacian Empire, and the catalyst for this war, and essentially the entire book, is the death of the Akaran king. I’ll be honest, even without knowing this beforehand, the tone of the book suggested that something tragic was going to happen early on, and it seemed inevitable, at least to me, that the king would die. So I personally feel that if the reader is aware of these developments beforehand, it shouldn’t affect their overall enjoyment of the book since there is a lot more story left to be told after this event occurs. Of course, if you can avoid any and all spoilers before reading the book, then that would definitely be the best approach.

So what kind of fantasy is “Acacia”? Well, as promised, I’ll try to be as spoiler-free as possible, while providing enough information that you’ll know and be interested in the kind of book that you’ll be getting into. First off, the book is set in the Known World, which is populated by several distinct provinces, the heart of which lies the island of Acacia. This aspect of the book reminds me somewhat of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, as both worlds are a sort of mishmash of varying historical-based cultures, locales and eras with “Acacia” possessing not just a European flavor, but also elements of Africa and Norsemen/Vikings. As far as the actual world building, David Anthony Durham does a convincing job of creating a unique, yet realistic & believable Known World, complete with its own races, customs, geography, climates, and mythology. It’s a world that may seem familiar at first, but possesses some major differences that really separate “Acacia” from other fantasy, namely its rich, ethnic diversity, (reminiscent somewhat of the racial miscellany that exists in Steven Erikson’s Malazan books), which plays an important part in the story as does the roles of slavery and the drug known as the Mist. Other features I found interesting were the Forms, a method of swordplay that the Acacian soldiers are trained in, the enigmatic traders known as the League of Vessels and of course magic. After all, what kind of fantasy novel would it be without some form of magic? Like George R. R. Martin’sA Song of Ice & Fire” series, the magic in “Acacia” is understated, but is an integral piece of the overall puzzle. While the magic system may not be the most original concept I’ve seen, it does have its moments and I’m curious to see how events progress with it in future volumes. Staying on the subject of world building, another notable difference with “Acacia” is that religion, while present & relevant, doesn’t have nearly the dominating presence that a lot of fantasy does these days, and I for one found that refreshing. Finally, the best part of the Known World is that it’s only a small piece of a much larger and unexplored universe that we really only get tiny glimpses of in the book and I’m very excited to discover what is out there beyond the Known World, especially if David Anthony Durham can bring the same level of detail & realism to it as he did with “Acacia”.

Moving on, let’s focus on what I feel are the heart & soul of “Acacia”. As fascinating as the Known World is, it wouldn’t be half as interesting without a compelling story and sympathetic characters to bring that story to life. Concentrating on the former, “Acacia” is not about a band of heroes trying to save their world from a great evil. Instead, “Acacia” is about people fighting to make their world a better place to live in while staying true to their ideals. So while there are those who can be defined as protagonists and antagonists in the book, each side passionately believes that what they are fighting for is right, and truthfully, both parties are somewhat justified in their thinking, and yet, their causes are also flawed in many ways. In fact, the line between those we would consider good or evil is actually very thin and can change in a heartbeat due to a single decision made because of a particular emotional response. That’s what I like about “Acacia”. Events are not driven by prophecy or fate toward some preordained final battle. On the contrary, every major occurrence in “Acacia” is instigated by human emotion, be it vengeance, greed, remorse, fear or love. That’s not to say that larger forces aren’t involved in the story, because they are – gods who have turned their back on humanity, banished sorcerers, lost magic, cursed spirits, etc. – yet it is the human element that decides how these forces might affect them. Through it all though, what really humanizes “Acacia” is the actual characters and the manner in which the story is told.

Character-wise, “Acacia” features multiple point-of-views including the King of Acacia, his four children, the king’s chancellor, the chieftain of the Mein tribes, his two brothers, a general of the Northern Guard, and the governor of Cathgergen. Personally, I felt that the characterization by David Anthony Durham was skillfully done and reminded me a lot of George R. R. Martin’s characterization in “A Song of Ice & Fire”, sans the Arthurian setting and not on that ambitious scale of course, nor up to the standards set by one of the series more memorable characters, Tyrion. Basically, like GRRM, all of the characters in “Acacia” are realistically crafted, with distinctive personalities, strengths & weaknesses, and as the book progresses, we get to see these characters develop, sometimes with very surprising results. Additionally, we get to see the perspectives of both the heroes and the villains, once again accentuating that human element, and don’t be surprised if somewhere along the way, someone decides to change sides. Also, like GRRM, no character is safe from biting the big one, and because we are able to know how they think & feel, and understand the reasons behind their actions, we really care what happens to them, so the finality of death can be a very emotional event in the book. This brings me to my final point regarding the story and its very human characters…the style in which “Acacia” is told. In short, “Acacia’s” narrative is very Homeric, or in plainer terms, dramatic. So, when an emotionally-charged event occurs, be it a tragic death, heroic feat, or a passion gained then lost, it is done so in a manner that is both stylish & powerful, amplifying what is already a compelling tale.

Truthfully, I could probably keep going on and on about the different aspects that “Acacia” has to offer, but since this review is starting to run a bit long, I figure that I better just cut to the chase. As a reader and a fantasy enthusiast, I absolutely loved “Acacia”. For me, if a book can evoke comparisons to such acclaimed greats as GRRM, Steven Erikson, Jacqueline Carey and to some extent Guy Gavriel Kay & Stephen R. Donaldson without aping their style and while offering a fresh perspective in the fantasy genre as David Anthony Durham’sAcacia” accomplishes, then there is something special about that novel. Of course, as a critic, I did have a few issues with the book. For instance, as good as the characterization is, secondary players get the short end of the stick, and I felt were underutilized & underdeveloped. Also, at times, main characters would act out of nature with their actions or dialogue, though fortunately this is a rare occurrence. Furthermore, the book can be an overly serious affair with little humor injected and I could see this being an issue with some readers. Finally, as epic and as lengthy as “Acacia” is, I thought that it could have been even longer. Certain major events in the book, like the war between the Mein and the Acacians, were skimmed over or rushed, and I thought would have benefited from a more detailed description. I also would have loved to have seen more backstory, not just with certain characters, but also with Acacia’s history, which seems to have a lot more to offer. All in all though, these are really just minor complaints, because when it comes right down to it, “Acacia” is an excellent new offering in the fantasy genre that I would rank right up there alongside Scott Lynch or Patrick Rothfuss’ debuts, and which, in some ways even surpasses them. Give it a few more years and a couple more book releases, and perhaps David Anthony Durham is a name that will be mentioned next to heavyweights such as GRRM, Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, etc. Speaking of David Anthony Durham, the author is obviously an accomplished & experienced writer blessed with superior prose, so that even though “Acacia” may show its rawness at times as an author’s first attempt at penning a fantasy epic, the writing overcomes these deficits, and I feel will only get better as the series progresses. So, in the end, I highly recommend “Acacia”, which is the start to a major new fantasy series that possesses the potential for greatness…

PostScript: For a different perspective on “Acacia – Book One: The War With the Mein“, I’d recommend checking out Jay Tomio’s review at Fantasybookspot. Jay is also working on an interview with David Anthony Durham as am I, so if you’re not familiar with the author, no worries since I think you’ll be hearing a lot more of David in the next few months. As to the two covers, the one on the left is the US edition, while the one on the right is the German edition. Which do you prefer?

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