David Anthony Durham is an accomplished writer. He has earned much praise for historical novels such as Gabriel's Story, Walk Through Darkness, and most recently for Pride of Carthage. He has won quite a few awards for those novels, including the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award and the Legacy Award. So it was with great curiosity that I read Acacia: The War with the Mein, as this is Durham's first foray into fantasy writing.
On the surface, Acacia appears to be set in a rather familiar world: ancient empire ruled by a kindhearted king, dark and mysterious forces gathering in the northern regions, mystical magi once powerful but now exiled from the realm. Sounds like a ready-made world ripe for exploration of the coming of age experience and how good will try to resist evil. Or perhaps it will resemble George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire in its protagonist center of a beleaguered father and four children (two boys, two girls) who are fated to come to grips with a world that is not that of fairy tales, to whom separation will lurk around the corner, ever followed by betrayal and the risk of capture by enemies.
However, appearances can be quite deceiving and in Durham's case, quite rewarding when one delves below the surface features of the story. The Acacian realm, ruled by the Akaran royal family, might appear to be prosperous and sedate on the outside, but there are troubling references to things such as the Quota, Mist, and the looming Lothan Aklun peppered throughout the first section and explored in more detail in the latter two sections of the book. The national myth about how Acacia was founded by a glorious ancestor named Tinhadin, who established the major traditions of the Akaran kingdom, is challenged by revelations from the purportedly "evil" Hanish Mein and the banished Santoth wizards. Things never are quite what they seem and it is with this backdrop that Durham's story really begins to unfold.
Durham writes from a limited third-person point of view perspective. His characters express their thoughts in sentences that brim with description but which manage to avoid going into excess. Sometimes, a lot is said in just a few words, as evidenced below when Corinn reflects on her mother's illness early into the novel:
As painful as this was, it was compounded by the fact that she saw herself in each portion of her mother's dying body. Her mother had given her the shape of her face, the character of her lips, the pattern of lines across her forehead. They had the same hands: the same rate of taper and length, the same character to the knuckles, the same thin fingernails, the same off-kilter slant to the small finger. The girl of ten had held between her palms an aged, decaying, fading grip on herself, like some strange conflation of the past with the present or the present with the future.
Though she often schemed the days away with youthful optimism, part of her was nagged by the fear that she would not live out the year. Or if she did it would be only so that she would first gain everything, then lose it all, then die. She had felt this way when she was ten, and then eleven and twelve and so on, but still the feeling was as strong as ever. The fact that she balanced these morbid thoughts with an otherwise effervescent nature was as confusing to her as it would have been to those who viewed her from the outside. She hid her darker musings as best she could, both alarmed by and ashamed of them. She often reminded herself that every living being faced death; few of them were offered a life of such rich potential as she. And perhaps she was wrong. Maybe she would live a long and joyful existence; maybe she would even find a way to live forever, ageless and untouched by illness. - Acacia, p. 52-53
Some might find that to be a bit too impersonal or "overwritten"; I did not. Instead, what I noticed is that little scenes such as that in the early section serve to foreshadow later personality developments. The Corinn of the later chapters is reflected well in that little passage. Each important character receives similar treatment. Although some fantasy readers may long for a character-centered point of view á la Martin, for example, Durham's approach allows for a more condensed approach towards exploring the world of Acacia and it's background. Durham writes well and he writes with a purpose. He easily could have had this opening book to a trilogy become a two or three book introduction, but his combination of spare description and excellent use of limited third-person point of view enable him to tell a sweeping story of character development and revelation of the world about in a single 576 page novel that concludes satisfactorily while still leaving enough issues unsettled as to leave space for the planned second and third volumes.
This is not to say that all readers will have an easy time getting into the novel. Sometimes the hardest part of the novel to write is the beginning and for those who are more used to action-oriented scenes, the focus on character development and the introductions of many PoV characters might make for rather slow reading at first. However, the rewards to be garnered by a close reading of this section are immense, as doing so will allow for a deeper understanding of the mechanics of Acacian society and how those mechanics often will have a ghastly effect on how the protagonists and antagonists alike are going to view the world around them. This is especially seen towards the end when one main character appears to succumb to the expediencies of control without understanding fully the implications behind ruling wisely. This world has many enemies. The most insidious do not (yet) have a human face, but they certainly are all the more disturbing for how easily they can corrupt well-intentioned people into giving into what is more easily done.
And this touches upon one of the layered themes of Acacia - alienation from intended purpose. From the creation "myth" of Acacia to the present situation, good intentions have gone horribly astray. From what has happened to the Santoth to the sources of the Hanish Mein attack, so much revolves around the forgetting of the ties that unite us in place of forging ties that bind people in often absently cruel fashions. One cannot read Acacia without seeing copious examples of our inhumanity to each other being reflected in the choices and actions of the characters. It is a fantasy in setting, but one which mirrors our own "real world" in many thought-provoking ways. There are levels here, levels with chains attached.
Summary: Acacia is a rewarding, reflective first novel in a planned trilogy that evokes much of our world and its history in its telling. Characters are written from a limited third-person PoV, with a focus more on character development than on action scenes. Very well-written, with descriptions revealed in small segments rather than in pages-long infodumps. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fantasies and those who have read Durham's earlier work. One of the better epic fantasy openers that I've read in recent years.