Acacia begins a new epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham, acclaimed author of historical fiction such as Pride of Carthage and Gabriel’s Story. While it may represent a big change in venue for Durham, after a bit of a rough start he pulls together a notable entrance to SFF and story I enthusiastically await the continuation of.
Acacia, Book One: The War With the Mein begins in an unfortunate and underwhelming way. The reader is introduced to an assassin of the Mein journeying from the inhospitable, frozen north to kill the distant ruler of the Known World. From here we meet the King, his two sons, two daughters, and a small host of other important players. Combined with an invasion of a militarily superior yet barbaric race out of the ice fields allied with the Mein, the kingdom is thrown into chaos and the royal family sent far from home among distant cultures as the revolution settles with a new leader atop the Known World.
The first third of Acacia seems to serve only the purpose of introducing the world and those of importance as the story progresses – this in and of itself would be fine, if not for a couple of equally grievous issues. First, the writing is just plain dull – I’ve said before that the best writers rarely tell the reader anything, instead they show it. Durham fails by telling the reader a lot while showing very little. The second issue of concern is the striking similarity to the much praised series by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. The Akaran royal family is at times so similar to Martin’s Starks that I wanted exchange the names – we have the noble patriarch, haughty heir, a princess’s princess, and ‘Arya’ and ‘Bran’ along for the ride. Throw in the seemingly unbeatable menace from the far north and story feels all too familiar.
Acacia is divided into three ‘books’ with a short epilogue where a period of several years passes between book one and book two. I felt as if I were reading a whole new story (a much better one) when I started book 2. Durham’s writing improves markedly as he begins to show me the story rather than telling it. The similarities with Martin almost completely vanish as Acacia comes into its own as a unique epic saga following the four displaced Akaran children (now adults) as they struggle to regain themselves, the kingdom they lost, and vengeance of past wrongs. Thankfully, it appears that the writing of book 2 is the norm as Durham serves up one of the more engaging novels I’ve read in a while.
Along with an ultimately gripping plot, Durham addresses the corruption of power in some interesting ways as he portrays the leaders of the kingdom as little more than slaves to a system that insures great wealth for the aristocracy while relying on slavery and drug addiction to quell the masses. Equally interesting, but not as fully developed as it could have been, is the depiction of a racially diverse world and the divisions that arise. To some degree, each of the Akaran children must face and overcome their feelings of racial superiority as they seek to reunite a kingdom that was far from pleasant under the rule of their ancestors.
Characterization is a bit of mixed bag with plot generally taking precedence. Some of the characters achieve a fullness that seems appropriate and believable, while others never quite do. This is do in-part to Durham’s mixing of an almost first person narration style with a third person-limited style that can either allow or disallow a full view of a character. In the end, the characterization is strong enough to drive a powerful plot forward and to justify actions taken.
While Acacia has a few downsides, I cannot deny that it is a powerful story and one that I enjoyed immensely. The latter two-thirds completely engaged me leaving me craving for the next installment of the trilogy. This first installment is one complete arc as the stage is set for a great expansion of the Known World. The first third of the novel is unfortunate, yet I still enthusiastically recommend Acacia – 7/10.