Published by Doubleday
416 Pages (593 in Advance Review Copy)
Published by Doubleday
David Anthony Durham, already acclaimed as an author of historical novels, switches genres with Acacia Book One: The War with the Mein, the launch of a fantasy trilogy. The land of Acacia is a gilded one, the royals live a life free of struggle while the life that affords them this luxury is one of dark trades and immoral practices, such as drug trafficking, slavery, and human consignment. Durham does a convincing job of both setting up this dichotomy and reinforcing it throughout the novel without brow-beating the subject.
The novel begins with a great deal of dramatic tension, as the opening chapter describes the journey of an assassin from the Mein, ancient enemies of the Acacians, who is traveling to murder King Leodan Akaran, ruler of Acacia. The next chapter focuses on the children of Leodan in a peaceful, playful scene – eldest Aliver, prince Dariel and daughters Mena and Corinn. Immediately, Durham places the reader ill at ease, with an underlying threat coming to disrupt the peaceful Arkan world. This underlying tension is maintained very well throughout the novel.
Divided into the three sections, the first of which, as intimated, sets up the Akaran family, their long line of rule in Acacia and how it crumbles under the assassin’s knife. At times, I felt Durham conveyed the world too much through the dreaded info-dump, without weaving dialogue, character introspection and interaction in an engaging balance. Though this style was a bit uneven, the history/backstory he presented was interesting enough that these info-dumps weren’t as much as a problem as they could have otherwise been in a more unskilled writer’s hands.
The second third of the novel breaks apart the Akaran family, sending each child their separate ways and focusing on them (and the Known World itself) nine years after the murder of Leodan. I liked how Durham didn’t make it crystal clear which child’s story he was relaying upon its introduction. That is, when Durham focused on Dariel and where he ended-up as a result of his father’s death he did not immediately reveal it was in fact Dariel upon whom the chapter was focusing. I liked this particular game he played with the reader, for me it made the story more of a shared effort between reader and writer.
The final third of the novel brings the Akaran children back together as they attempt to reclaim the land stolen by their enemies. In both the second and final third of the novel, Durham also builds up the “current” Acacian court, as it is ruled by Hanish Mein (in Mein culture, the ruler of the Mein people adopts their cultural name as his or her surname). While Hanish and the collective Mein people are portrayed as the antagonists to the Acacians, Durham does well not to make their conflict completely black and white / good v. evil issue. Both the Acacians, and the history of the Akaran specifically, is pockmarked with inhumane deeds and dealings that could be considered evil. By contrast, the Mein are portrayed in both an (at times) honorable and righteous light. Again, not specifically a conflict of good v. evil in this novel, but rather a conflict of different interests where the opposing parties can both be cast with blemishes and fallibility.
As this review suggested earlier, Durham maintains a palpable level of tension throughout. What he does with even more skill is flavoring the entire novel with an air of mythic resonance. However, this air of myth is something Durham builds slowly. It comes through first in the stories Arkan tells his children about the history and prehistory of their nation and world. In particular, Leodan tells his children the story of Basher and Cashen, two brothers who initially were very close but were ultimately torn apart by their own lust and craving for power. The air of myth builds as further stories and myths are brought into the fold. In the second third of the novel, the style changes somewhat as Durham begins to relay the “where are they now” of the Akaran children with a mythic voice. Durham’s story begins work in an “emerging legends” as each Akaran child comes to fit either a myth/legend of the greater unconscious or he/she fits the mold of a legendary figure in their own world’s greater pantheon. In the third act, these Arkan legends come out of “hiding” and re-emerge into their own world, the one they left. Durham, on the whole, conveys the living Akaran legends convincingly through the eyes of the characters surrounding the Akaran children. I found this mythic effect to be the most entertaining, resonating and rewarding aspect of the whole novel.
The book can also seen as something as a parable, or at least I viewed parts of it as such. The gilded land that Leodan presides over is something that can easily be paralleled with American society in that people often don’t want to see the darkness underneath their own advantages and happy life. The theme of power runs throughout the novel, from the myth of the brothers Leoden tells his children in the opening third of the novel; to the power plays during Hanish Mein’s reign; as well as the parlays for power in the Akaran children’s lives outside of Acacia; to the ultimate power plays and revelations as the novels concludes.
Whenever an author “jumps genres” there are great possibilities for the author to completely fail. While I did have a couple of minor problems over the course of the novel, particularly the info dumps and sense that the set-up could have been more seamless, I think Durham has crafted both an entertaining and engaging novel with Acacia Book One: War with the Mein. This novel clearly sets up a greater story, and while a novel with a distinct ending, little doubt is left that the greater story remains untold. If War with the Mein is an indication of what is to come in this epic saga, Durham could be making a very big name for himself in not only the fantasy genre, but he may also be adding to his name in general as an accomplished novelist and storyteller.
© 2007 Rob H. Bedford