review: Acacia: The War With the Mein by David Anthony Durham

acacia

For twenty-one generations an unbroken Akaran line has ruled the Known World; the staple in the pages of the gloss of stability and prosperity, the latest chapter given to King Leodan, not to write, but to keep on the shelf. A widower-monarch, he lived his life in the shadows of his ancestors, bound by their actions, as he knew his children would be. Leodan finds solace in sharing the fate of his people, drawing from the same tainted air and sharing in their vice. Unlike his people, he chooses to wear his chains, in either some piteous, twisted-gallant attempt to share the lie turned hash reality of his people — feeling it the least and most he could do — or to forget the very truth his kingdom was built upon or both. While in his own clouded mind it is still clear he knew he would not sustain either his life or own reign, his line would survive him. For better or worse, it would fall on his children to find their own story and bring to light the question of whether or not if stories do change or are merely reenacted by those who follow us in the quest not to.

In the distant frozen reaches of the empire, the Mein, a hardened race, and allies in establishing and expanding Akaran dynastic power nurse a 21-generation marinated hate. Driven by and burdened by his restless ancestors, Hanish Mein will lead his people out of exile with the best of intentions and with allies not of the known world. The Akaran children will be separated and clandestinely dispersed to differing corners of the Empire until history find them.

What’s right is clearly evident. It’s immensely readable, as Durham gives you multiple journeys to follow and does so without spending a substantial amount of time dragging explanatory back-story in an artificial and ponderous manner. We literally begin our stay into Durham’s world heading out the gate, on a singular, single-minded mission that would change the future history of the world that will unfold with us. We don’t so much have to wallow in the past history as much as we are thrust into the making of history itself. For myself, with few exceptions, large and lengthy action scenes in novels have become akin to chase scenes in films, which is to say altogether boorish and prime skim worthy non-content. The list of authors that are able elevate an already existing aura of passion with sensible brutality effectively into such scenes doesn’t go much beyond the likes of Stover, Erikson, Bakker, and few others, so what Durham chooses to do is a rather welcome occurrence for me and while it could be viewed as anticlimactic manner of writing I found it rather apt. Durham tends to have the crux of large-scale campaigns occur off-page and directs the reader right to the outcome that instills an effect that war changes abruptly and absolutely — the world turns. The plight of the Akaran children offers diverse enough avenues that one will be hard pressed not to find something that peaks interest — the pirate, godly figurehead, sansa-lite, the transition from boy to man. From the fringes of the empire that bears their name they are educated beyond the scope that the opulence of the Imperial center could hide from them. It presents both the potential fulfillment-dream and worst nightmares of a father who desired social and political change but was caught in-between with the dilemma of his responsibilities to his kingdom and to that of the harmony of his children’s lives in his remaining years. In the end he sends his children into hiding — much as he hid himself — but in doing so they find an understanding of the world they live in and with that, themselves.

The subtitle of this book is The War with the Mein and Durham does an admirable job in creating (with the Akarans) conflicting factions that merit more than lazy and haphazard tags regarding their motivations and races. The Mein have legitimate and even reasonable motivations. The three brothers of the ruling family are a motley brood, but each uniquely come to define some form of the word efficacious. In it’s simplest form, the brothers come to display three different models of reaction of the disenfranchised who are sick of the man pushing in their neighborhood, a practice that literally cursed generations of their people — and the Mein are playing dirty but no more so than the Acacians. Neither can much stomach The League, who hold a monopoly on commerce, are uncontested at sea and are the keepers and benefactors of the Acacian pact with those not of known world that both cripples and permits the Empire to exist. They (the league) play the role of the capitalist mercs in the setting and are the target of universal scorn and jealousy that comes with it.

As noted, Durham’s trade has been in historical fiction and Acacia has this unmistakable feel of a tale relayed by a historian with no present stakes tied to the conflict of the time. This gives the characters, factions and thus the book itself a style of presentation that allows the reader opportunities to feel conflicted in offering their allegiance to opposing sides of conflict and differing characters across those lines. Such a quality is generally — and aptly — attributed to a work as a desired element, indeed a success in a reading, yet at time I felt tied to the fence. We get characters who completely turn full circle, and then half again, but don’t feel as if they step out and it dangerously walks the line of being so preoccupied or perhaps so efficient in displaying how well rounded it is that everyone takes on the aura of uniformity, showing us all there is to offer, and while at times stimulating, one finds it hard not to notice the lack of emotional highs and lows in the flow of the read. Make no mistake, I do not require or even at all desire characters to sympathize with, much less personally admire, however, I felt I lacked any considerable reaction to occurrences in these character’s lives that I felt should have moved me or my opinion of them and this never occurred. One Thadeous Clegg, the Akaran chancellor — the second most powerful man in the Empire and confidant of Leodan — is a perfect example and his is a tale of betrayal, duty, vengeance, loyalty, lost love, family, and redemption yet we seem to go through these sometimes overlapping cycles unscathed and unaffected. Very early in the book and in the very section we are introduced to Clegg we read this of him:

“Dealing with the moral ramifications of what he had just begun would not be nearly as easy”

But it is.

We stroll through a war and do so untouched. There is an immediacy that never reveals itself, an intimacy that always seems a page away. This isn’t to say that Durham isn’t confronting us with relevant questions in his examination of the role and eventual motivation of leadership, nationalism, slavery, and cultural outlook — both introspective and otherwise — but it is just so leveled in presentation through the characters that what ends up emanating is this withdrawn quality. Characters tend to go through the motions and in the end it’s the local lap dance that doesn’t come home with you — a comprehensive and vivid look but not truly an experience. It lacks in choice moments of personal extremity — not in terms to appease the gratuitous, but to truly endear. It is not that such moments don’t try to occur, but like kicking someone to death with a foot fallen asleep the satisfaction seems incomplete. There is a speculative-mystery content — those nebulous truths left to ponder between episodes in multi-book sequences that are stories within the stories that are make the time between installments events themselves — that seem absent to me at this point excluding only the true nature of sorcery or magic system Durham is going to employ. The mythological backdrop of Durham’s world, although allowing for slight local variances deals with a common enough application of magic that is rooted in the application of the language of the creator. What we do know of magic is gifted to us by those banished for knowledge of the practice during the formative years of the Akaran dynasty and by self-admittance their own application is an incomplete, tainted form of the true word. Couple that with the fact that the veracity of their input is dubious at best and we get a minor dose of legitimate ambiguity that I think, not coincidentally, connects with the most engaging character in the book, that of the Akaran General, Leeka Alain. Just about every other character we read about is of the royal family, has aims of supplanting and being such, or otherwise sycophants. Leeka, even with carrying a rank of some prestige takes on the role of the everyman and gives us the story of a veteran, both in the military and in life who so often serves as the spearhead with the virgin eyes through which we are introduced to the supernatural or foreign horrors and wonders of Durham’s world. It is with him we truly breathe the Acacian air, and where Durham seems to let loose outside of the confines of the structure that the principals of the first book are confined to move the plot. Now, by default does that imply a quality of contrivance present in the meat of the novel? Faintly. It does feel scripted and lacks that organic progression at times, but contrivance is the four-letter word of SF/F reviewing and if it apt it is only so because Acacia and Durham are impressive enough to gauge against — though not equal — the very best currently in the epic landscape. We are not speaking in terms of Newcombelike proportions or anything resembling such, but at times it felt like the world was revolving around the convenience of propelling the few. Quality authors hide what’s beyond the corner — the masters jump you on the straightaway and dare you to get up and even look at, much less limp around the corner.

Acacia is already a certainly much more than competent beginning of an epic fantasy story — it might even be a great one — and is a thoughtful platform for Durham’s aforementioned themes but exists as almost two separate entities making Acacia have the feel of being a product of two worthwhile exclusive quantities that don’t quite seamlessly combine into a product that is greater than its parts. While reading, pages will flip with no lack of anticipation, the story moves, but after the last page while certainly still ready and willing to move on, I will do so unchanged; the same person who embarked almost 600 pages ago which is a rather remarkable happenstance considering the themes Durham is engaging. I admire and laud what Durham wants to pull off the shelf and bring to the fantasy round table, but the true stature of a story for me is measured by the level of manipulation that resides in the seat around the table not what’s brought to it. I look forward to Durham’s next installment that promises to take us to the unknown, to the Lothan Aklum and beyond, the follow-up to a debut that strokes my epic sensibilities and has and kept my interest, but not one that can yet demand it.

Check out my interview with David Anthony Durham and get the low down on Acacia.