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Book Review: Acacia by David Anthony Durham

Genre: Epic Fantasy
ISBN: 0385722524
ISBN-13: 9780385722520
Format: Mass Market Paperback, 753pp
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pub. Date: August 2008
Author Website
Author Blog

Acacia is an epic fantasy about the rise and fall of empire, but unlike Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Rome Empire or Homer’s Iliad, this tale entertains while exploring the intricate play between politics, race, personal wants and needs, culture, commerce, and history. David Anthony Durham’s first fantasy novel (he is the author of three other novels in other genres) takes the basic theme that “the world is corrupt from top to bottom,” (p.501) and “the myths empires create to explain their crimes.” (from the author’s website) and makes of it a story, a tale of four children, heirs to empire, who are cast to the winds as a result of a successful coup of their father’s throne.

The story is about how a complacent empire, one that rules most of the Known World, is thrown into turmoil when a subjugated people, the Mein, take it upon themselves to through off the shackles that the Acacians had placed on them. Or at least, that is the perception of the Meins. Like most conquerors, the Acacians see themselves as benevolent. But the truth is, neither position is correct, and each people have committed sins against the other and against innocents, all in the name of creating a “better” world.

Durham is exploring, through these four characters, why leaders will make decisions that seem harmful for what they call a greater good. He looks at what happens to idealists, and the reasons that people seek power. Each of the four siblings, two boys and two girls, seeks the return of their kingdom, but for different reasons. Aliver, the oldest, becomes and idealist. Corrin seeks safety from death and suffering. Mena is the embodiment of wrath. And Dariel, the youngest boy, is a rakish rogue whose motivations are more familial than power-hungry. The development of these characters drives the novel, and what happens to them, both before and after their flight, has significant repercussions for the world they know.

Interestingly, although this novel is part of trilogy, it is possible to read it as a self-contained novel. The story wraps up, with only a few loose ends, by the very last page. The epilogue gives a hint of what is to come in book two, but in an unusual twist, Acacia is readable by itself. So readers afraid of long series that never seem to end like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin will not have to worry.

Martin’s work actually makes a good comparison to Durham’s. The two are much the same in content. They paint vast pictures of large worlds, with complex political and personal motivations for the characters, and neither lets the story drift into idealism. This is not the epic fantasy where everything works out great for your favorite characters, and some of the ones you dislike become more appealing as the story progresses. The two authors have much in common, and readers of one will certainly enjoy the other. Fans of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, will also enjoy the story as well. Though Acacia is far from humorous, it has the same darker, more pragmatic view of its world and Abercrombie readers will find much to enjoy in Durham’s work. Fans of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind will also like Acacia. Both Rothfuss and Durham develop characters who a re neithe whooly good, nor wholly bad, but sort of in bewteen, people who do waht they must to do what they believe is eitehr in their own best interest, or in the interest of the greater good.

Magic does appear in this story, though it is of a limited presence. The people of Acacia had magic once, but had lost it in the sands of time. The revival of the presence of magic is part and parcel with the way that Aliver and his siblings attempt to overthrow the usurpers. But magic is not commonly used, as it often is in other fantasies. (This is one more correlation with George R. R. Martin, where magic is part of the world, but only makes rare appearances, if any.)

David Anthony Durham’s writing style in Acacia is not like most epic fantasies. Durham relies on a great deal of description, and internal monologues. Each of the seventy-one chapters comes from the perspective of a character, and the characters thoughts and impressions and descriptions make up the bulk of each chapter. On occasion, there is some dialogue, when strictly necessary. Take, for example, the following passage in which Dariel and a general named Leeka converse.

“He [Dariel] once said ‘You look pleased with yourself.’
‘I am pleased with the world,’ was Leeka’s response.
Late on the fifth day Dariel asked him if they were approaching a great city or trading outpost. He thought there would only be small villages all the way to Umae, which was a small village itself. Leeka answered that this route connected the dots from village to village. But no, he said, there was no great city on the horizon.” (p.539)

In the final paragraph, the conversation between Dariel and Leeka never actually moves into dialogue, it simply describes the conversation that occurred. Turn the page from this passage and a key piece of plot development occurs without a bit of dialogue. This in no way detracts from the enjoyment of the story, but this style of writing is a rare thing. Readers who like dialogue-intensive stories may find it difficult to read. This sort of writing is common throughout the novel, even being preferred above traditional dialogue. While Durham doesn’t avoid dialogue, he doesn’t use it overmuch either. In part, that is probably a result of each chapter being from the perspective of a character, making dialogue less necessary, since most conversation occurs between characters whose minds we have entered at some time before.

Acacia is all epic fantasy is supposed to be. It has significant plot twists, never bogs down in detail, but has a rich and detailed world with multiple histories and cultures that never avoids the personal stories either. This has got to be hands-down one of the best fantasies I have ever read. You should read it too. Durham is sure to be hailed as a master of epic fantasy in the not too distant future, and his work will be required reading for any fans of speculative fiction. Don’t miss the train. Read Acacia.