David Anthony Durham‘s Acacia has some of elements of epic fantasy we’ve all seen before: a large empire, a resentful race, a king’s children scattered and forced to grow into previously hidden strengths, a near-ritualized style of sword fighting, political intrigue, large battle scenes, and a few others. But anyone thinking to write off Acacia as simply another cookie-cutter fantasy would be missing a highly rewarding read — for Durham gives us these familiar set-ups only to repeatedly yank them out from under our feet.
The title of the book is also the name of the empire we meet at the start, an empire that has ruled the “known world” for generations and whose symbol is the acacia tree that adorns its home island. But Acacia is built on a deeply immoral foundation. Long ago, it agreed to a Faustian bargain with the Lothan Aklun, a mysterious and powerful group on the other side of the world. In return for a guarantee of peace, Acacia sends to the Aklun an annual “quota” of thousands of people. What happens to them is something the Acacian kings have never had much interest in pursuing. Along with freedom from attack, the empire also receives from the Aklun a ready supply of “mist,” an opiate drug that keeps the people docile.
The current king of Acacia, Leodan, (like perhaps others before him) once dreamed of stopping this immoral trade, but history, politics, inertia, and the death of his wife have buried this dream. A mist addict himself, he now focuses on maintaining the empire and on the comfort of his four children — Aliver, Dariel, Corrin, and Mena — while dreaming of his wife at night.
Meanwhile, up in the frozen north, Hannish Mein, chief of the Mein people, who were long ago defeated and driven out of the milder climes by the Acacians and placed under a terrible curse, is setting in motion a plan to regain his people’s traditional homeland.
The set-up is typical and clearly, when Acacia falls and the children scatter, the reader will be rooting for them to put it back together. But then you remember that this monarchy is built on blood and slavery. So do you really regret its fall? So Durham challenges us nearly immediately with an uncomfortable warp of the familiar. And this was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of — its pattern of surprise; each time you thought the book was heading down a predicable writing path in terms of either plot or character, it took an unexpected turn. Oh, look — here comes the set-up for one of those grand several-day battles I’ve grown accustomed to. Umm, wait. I took a sip of my beverage and came back to the page and the big battle was already over. Oh, look — yet another spoiled beauty of a princess. And look where he’s placed her. Obviously she’s going to… Oh. Didn’t quite expect that. At least, not in that fashion. And on it goes.
This isn’t the superficiality of just a cool plot twist (especially those “twists” we’ve seen so many times that they’re old hat). Nor do any of these turns feel arbitrary, gimmicky, or forced. Instead, they grow naturally out of character or situation (though sometimes we don’t see this until later). Durham substantially, thoughtfully uses our pre-programmed reading habits against us. I’d love to give some supporting examples, but I’d hate to deprive a reader of the same pleasure of unpredictability that I had.
The characters are another strength to this book. Not just the four children, each of whom gets spun off into their separate stories for a large chunk of time, but other characters as well: Hannish, Leodan’s chancellor Thaddeus, Leodan’s top general. Each must, at some point, make a decision between preservation of the status quo (which for many equals contentment or security, if not comfort) and change (which for many equals sacrifice, insecurity, and chaos. And all of them give you reasons to pull for them and to root against them. Hannish’s overthrow of Acacia is incredibly brutal and dishonorable (and here again, as you detest this you’re pulled off-stride by recalling that the same could be said of Acacia’s rule) but we are given access to other sides of him that paint him in a much different light. The same is true of the others; all are flawed. You’re not sure you’d trust any of them with power. But at some point each attains it; the question then becomes: “what will they do with it?”
Beyond the unpredictable plot and the strong characters (including several secondary characters), what about the book’s other aspects? For the most part, the book is well paced. The beginning may be a bit slow, sometimes we get a few info dumps that interrupt the flow, and it feels a tad overlong, but never bloated. Local settings vary in their detail; some are quite sharply drawn, while the overall view of the world remained a little abstract for me. Durham peppers the book with side-stories and myths told by one character to another, to mixed success. At times the stories worked quite well at shedding a light or adding a sense of history; at other times they felt a bit forced. The shifts in point-of-view were well handled, never confusing, and the timing of when we left a character and came back to them added to the book’s suspense. Finally, for all that I enjoyed in Acacia, I have to admit that it was a curiously detached enjoyment at times. For whatever reason, for many of the different storylines I never felt emotionally invested. Intellectually, yes. As wanting to learn what happened, yes. But in that visceral sense of empathy (if that’s the right word) I have in those books I truly love? Not really. I’d love to nail down a reason, but I have yet to figure it out.
But while I can’t therefore say I “loved” Acacia, I can say that I strongly recommend it. And maybe that emotional attachment will come in book two which I will eagerly await (Acacia, by the way, ends with a sense of resolution to much of the story but leaves more than enough hanging to warrant another book).
For the most part, I agree with Bill’s review — Durham’s plot and characters are really what makes this book good. However, like Bill, there’s something that prevents me from loving Acacia; I suspect that this is a combination of Durham’s prose and dialogue. At times, Durham utilizes strings of simple sentences, completely devoid of the adornment of even the smallest prepositional phrase. As a result, many parts of the book were tedious and hard to read because they conveyed the feeling that the story was a recitation of historical fact rather than, well, a story. I suspect that the book could also be cut down a lot, as there are many sections that I feel are overly wordy or dull.
Not bad, but I expected more. Main problem: I felt that the novel was stretched out way too long. Entire chapters could be boiled down to one or two sentences without losing much meaning. Fortunately, the world-building had some unique twists, and the end of the novel presents a much deeper and more interesting cast of characters than its beginning, which was a bit standard and predictable, so I’m hopeful for the next volume in the trilogy.
Acacia — (2007-2011) Available from Audible. Publisher: Leodan Akaran, ruler of the Known World, has inherited generations of apparent peace and prosperity, won ages ago by his ancestors. A widower of high intelligence, he presides over an empire called Acacia, after the idyllic island from which he rules. He dotes on his four children and hides from them the dark realities of traffic in drugs and human lives on which their prosperity depends. He hopes that he might change this, but powerful forces stand in his way. And then a deadly assassin sent from a race called the Mein, exiled long ago to an ice-locked stronghold in the frozen north, strikes at Leodan in the heart of Acacia while they unleash surprise attacks across the empire. On his deathbed, Leodan puts into play a plan to allow his children to escape, each to their 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.