Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review of Acacia: The War with the Mein by David Anthony Durham

Reading David Anthony Durham’s Acacia: The War with the Mein is a mixed experience.  On more than several occasions the clichés of epic fantasy are displayed in less than subtle fashion, but that it’s all done with a sense of grace, ease, and often enough, surprise, it’s difficult to stop reading.  The story setup is tried and true, but that Durham wills the book forward with tension, colorful enough characters, and moments that don’t always turn out as one expects, push it beyond mediocre.  But just.  A bridge between traditional and modern epic fantasy, the novel gains and loses everything for stretching itself across the divide.

Looking at the story setup for Acacia, one cannot help but acknowledge its ties to the roots of epic fantasy. For twenty-two generations King Leodan and his ancestors have held power from the island of Acacia.  A time of ease and luxury, the outlying kingdoms, most notable of which the Mein, pay tribute, withholding their malevolence for a time they might regain their independence with force.  Growing up in the most opulent of conditions, Leodan’s children, Aliver, Corinn, Mena, and Dariel, are never aware of the institution upon which their family’s empire is built and the political and economic contracts forcing these tributes.  But things are about to change.  The Mein, filled to the point of bursting with malcontent, have sent a most cherished assassin to upend the Known World.  And this is just the beginning of the tale.

Reading such a story introduction, it goes without saying Acacia is as epic as fantasy gets. Set in a sprawling, multi-cultured world, kings and queens, assassins, medieval-ness, sword duels, continent spanning wars, kidnapping, monstrous beasts—it’s all there.  But it’s also kept relatively realistic.  Featuring heroes with serious character flaws, good guys who don’t always survive, believably motivated evil, and emotions that hint at empathy, Durham also incorporates the more realistic style of contemporary fantasy.  Corinn’s story in particular seems to defy the fairy tale regard in which much epic fantasy is held; despite having the privilege of being the eldest daughter of the king, she makes choices and finds herself in situations no reader can predict.  As such, Durham balances the mythic side with the more rational side of storytelling for Corinn and many of other’s sub-stories in the novel.

Regarding the fantastic elements, I once had a person comment on my A Game of Thrones review that the book was not fantasy due to its lack of magic.  If you agree, steer away from Acacia (at least the first book in the series).  Like Martin, Durham uses the supernatural in subtle, limited fashion, preferring to let plot, and at times characterization, fill the tale rather than flashy action and wild magic.  (The final two books in the series are the exact opposite; magic floods the story.) There are no long-bearded wizards or elves or goblins or orcs.  More international in scope, exotic settings, island totems, desert gods, dead bodies that don’t decay, a handful of fantastical creatures, and beliefs from across the Known Land instead provide the supernatural.  Though prominent upon the conclusion, these elements are introduced slowly, fed out one morsel at a time, steadily enlivening what remains at heart a medieval saga.

The problems with Acacia mostly center on plot.  Events unfolding at a speed that overtakes realism, Durham often sacrifices believability for advancing the story.  Where the first section of the novel evolves in smooth, natural fashion, developments in the middle section require greater suspension of belief if the plot is to be engaged with.  Coincidences of character meetings aside (something that must be dealt with in much of fiction, not just fantasy), Dariel and Aliver’s stories in particular advance with a salience that is above and beyond anything smooth or organic.  Happily, Durham throttles back for the third and final section, weaving all the elements he’s put into play into a rousing and satisfying conclusion worthy of the qualifier “epic”.

An additional problem with Acacia is its style.  Mostly flat, the detailed elements of the world-building don’t harmonize with the mythic tone in which characters and events are portrayed.  One up close and the other far away, such fence-sitting leaves the book stuck between two modes, with neither emerging as victor.  In other words, the novel lacks the richness to be wholly storytelling and the distancing effect to be properly mythic, oscillating to negative effect between the two.  So while the main story line maintains a flavor to keep the average fantasy reader reading, other story elements exist in greater, uneven proportion, breaking the mood. 

Despite these quibbles, Acacia should be a sought-after read for anyone who calls themselves a fan of epic fantasy.  Possessing nearly every facet that makes the genre what it is, plus a few additional tricks, Durham tells his tale in a style that has one eye upon traditional fantasy, the other on a more modern perspective, giving the overall book something slightly more than average epic fantasy.  George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is obviously an influence (chapters are aligned with view point, the children of a powerful leader are the main characters, a view into the history/mythology of the land is presented in detail, there are realist rather than fairy tale aims, the evil comes from a cold north—need I go on?).  But despite being not entirely original, Durham does all the little things right.  His style practiced (if uncommitted) moves the story along at a good pace, striking a balance that should be welcome enough to fans of Guy Gavriel Kay.  That both writers also examine the meaning of myth to culture should likewise be of interest.  Fans of Martin, Kay or epic fantasy in general would more than likely enjoy reading Durham.

And finally, a note whether the series as a whole is worthwhile.  Of foremost importance is that it is not precisely linear; Acacia: The War with the Mein works very well in stand-alone mode and is a good litmus test whether you’ll like what follows.  Essentially the prologue, the two novels which follow, The Other Lands and The Sacred Band, are in fact the opening and closing acts of the main tale.  Consistent stylistically, Durham continues mixing classical and contemporary fantasy motifs the length of the series.  Likewise, there seems little dip in quality of the writing through the three books.  Storywise, the series comes to rely increasingly on magic, the conclusions of the various threads at the end of The Sacred Band entirely dependent on the fantastic.  The threads themselves remain both familiar (quests, prophecies, etc.) and unfamiliar (Durham’s unique cultures and fantasy creatures).  What I deem a mix of David Gemmell and Ursula Le Guin, Durham incorporates the gritty and bloody into a narrative with socially harmonious aims.  This mix doesn’t always work, but at a minimum there is a good story at the heart. As a whole, diehard fans of epic fantasy will probably enjoy it the most, while for those who dip into the sub-genre only occasionally, it will be hit or miss.

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