Acacia, by David Anthony Durham, is a surprising and satisfying piece of literature. It has strong characters, intriguing plots and effective prose. While it does suffer slightly from an absence of semantic rhythm and there are some issues with character motivation, it still tells a story worth reading and leaves you hoping the legend will continue.
The story begins with an assassin setting out on a mission. He is of the Mein race and we quickly get the sense of what these people are like: single-minded, proud and oppressed. His mission is to kill Leodan Akaran, King of Acacia, the oppressor of the Mein’s and ruler of the Known World. Akaran’s chancellor, Thaddeus Clegg, is in league with the Mein’s and is ready to watch Acacia fall due to a grudge he carries against Akaran family.
The assassination of the king takes place via a poisoned dagger. Prior to his death, the King asks Thaddeus to put into motion a plan they’d devised in their youth in the event that Akaran was ever killed. His four children were to be scattered in order to protect them. Moved by love for the children he’s helped raise, Clegg repents and carries out the plan. Acacia falls, and years later the old chancellor begins to gather the children and other loyalists together again. We are taken to each of the lands the children had been whisked away to and through bits of local legend and descriptive prose we learn much about the different kingdoms that had been under Acacian rule. Clegg now tells them of their father’s plan. By now, they should be ready to reclaim his fallen kingdom.
Meanwhile, Hanish, the leader of the Meins, also has plans to gather the children together – only his desire is to spill their blood and thus release his ancestors on earth again to right a plethora of ancient wrongs. The children of Akaran and the Meins eventually collide, along with ancient wizard-like beings, in a climax that is very different than expected.
Creating a believable and unique world is one of the foremost responsibilities of a fantasy novelist and Mr. Durham succeeds. As expected, he has many different cultures. The belief systems and the actions of each society are consistent and seem to be well founded. The Acacians are imperialistic and self-righteous; the Meins are harsh, made so by both their history and the land in which they live.
An interesting departure from typical fantasy is made: there is no ‘fair race’, as it were; no epic and grandiose poems in an ancient tongue that only a few understand. Alternate languages are usually a mainstay of fantasy; depriving Acacia of them does not detract from the story, even though there are many different societies, as mentioned, and likely they’d all have their own dialects.
The prose itself sometimes lacked some rhythm. Passages may need to be read a couple of times to properly place events and to be sure of exactly who‘s speaking. Word choice seemed to be too contemporary for a fantasy novel. Yet, Mr. Durham was able to accomplish much in brief passages. For example, Aliver Akaran goes in search of the Santoth, a race of sorcerers, who can help him set the world back on the right course. Only Aliver can do this, due to his lineage. It would seem a grand quest that may itself take up half a novel, yet it is all accomplished in a chapter and the reader is left feeling satisfied.
Characterization is strong. Each character has his or her own distinctive voice and motivations. They are all very human, as well. They struggle with guilt, treachery, betrayal, anger; they must cope with a destiny thrust upon them. At times, readers will dislike the choices these characters make; at times, the characters will be annoying and also endearing. This all serves to make them feel real. Some choices are heartbreaking – even when we see what’s coming we read faster, hoping that perhaps we got it wrong. Mr. Durham is not afraid to kill major characters, either. All of this makes for a memorable experience.
As far as the motivation issue is concerned, this is ambivalent. The Akaran children are presented with their dying father’s supposed plan by a man they had learned to be a traitor. They seemingly accept this without issue and launch themselves into a war. Perhaps it is all for consanguinity’s sake, but a little more evidence would have been good for motivation. After all, they’d all come to find a place in the world in the lands to which they’d been exiled that they were comfortable with. Additionally, the reader comes to empathize with the Mein’s. We are left with the feeling that there is no true villain in the story, no great evil to be deposed. It’s just a matter of who can manipulate the forces in the world the best and the fastest.
Perhaps, though, that gives Acacia a true relevance for today. It exposes a powerful nation whose foreign policy has angered its neighbors into action. These lands are all enemies and each has their own valid reasons for said enmity.
Acacia is a hard book to put down. It’s a powerful accomplishment for its author – a fantasy novel with departures from the genre and which questions the world in which we live. One can only hope that the Acacian chronicles continue.