The final installment in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy is due out in early October (at least in the U.S...), and as I hadn’t read these books yet and have seen lots of different and often quite extreme opinions about them, I decided to take this as an opportunity to finally get caught up. In this post I’ll offer a quick recap/review of the first book, Acacia: The War with the Mein, and in a few days I’ll cover the second book, The Other Lands, finishing with a review of The Sacred Band on or close to its publication date.
Beware: what follows below contains huge spoilers for the first book of the trilogy (but nothing substantial about books two and three) so don’t read this if you haven’t at least read Acacia: The War with the Mein. (In that case you can find a great spoiler-free review by Kate Nepveu right here.)
Also, fair warning: while I enjoyed this novel, I also feel that it has a few aspects and plot twists that just don’t work, and I’m going to point those out while I try to summarize its plot. Finally: this is a long post, so as my friends Bill and Amanda used to say at the start of their Malazan Re-read of the Fallen posts: grab a cup of tea before you start reading....
The first thing that struck me about this novel is its interesting setting. Durham immediately creates a huge chronological scale, setting up an empire covering a large geographical area with lots of racial diversity that’s been ruled by the same family for 22 consecutive generations. The ruling Akaran dynasty has been on top for so long that combat has become ritualistic, with fighters following established “forms” that are based on legendary battles from the past. The lands they rule vary greatly, from frozen tundra to desert-like areas to a remote island group. The capital itself is situated on the tiny island of Acacia.
It gradually becomes clear that this empire is actually a pretty horrible fantasy dystopia, but since we only see it from the point of view of either the rulers, who lead nice cushy lives, or the folks who are trying to invade it, it doesn’t hit home very hard that the Acacian empire is really a very nasty place until later on. The basic set-up is that the royal family pays off a (so far entirely off-screen) race called the Lothan Aklun by sending them boatloads of human slave children (euphemistically referred to as the “Quota”), all in exchange for a drug called “Mist” that keeps large chunks of the common populace so doped up that they barely realize how horrible their situation is. The empire also uses slave labor in their huge mines. The region ruled by the Akarans is referred to as the “Known World,” and the Lothan Aklun are somewhere else, not visible on this book’s map — but given that book two in the trilogy is called The Other Lands, you can be relatively sure that we’ll get to meet them later on. The middle man in all of this is the League of Vessels, who are based on a set of huge floating platform cities out in the ocean. They have an almost complete monopoly on the sea trade and so serve as the glue that keeps the entire wretched system running.
In the first section of the novel (“The King’s Idyll”), Durham introduces a large amount of characters in a series of short chapters. The first eight chapters are all told from different points of view, starting with a Mein assassin sent to kill the elderly King Leodan, and then following up with several of Leodan’s children and two powerful figures in his household: his adviser Thaddeus Clegg and General Leeka Alain. As interesting as the book’s setting is, I feel that many of these characters are too recognizable and fairly flat. Especially the royal children initially feel like they could have wandered into this novel from any number of other fantasy series: Mena is Arya, Corinn is Sansa, and so on. The ancient king, the conniving adviser with a chip on his shoulder, the sturdy and honorable general... Early on they all feel like you’ve seen them before. I have to confess that, despite its interesting setting, I considered giving up on this novel when I reached the end of the first section, mainly because the characters just hadn’t grabbed me. As the first act ends, the king has been killed, the Mein — who at this point seem to be your average all-purpose Nordic barbarian types — have won a decisive victory aided by an even more barbaric race called the Numrek, and the king’s children have fled in different directions.
But then, at the start of the second section (“Exiles"), there are some pleasant surprises that piqued my interest enough to keep going. The Mein have established firm control over the Empire but, unfortunately for the general population, they have basically kept the same system going and even increased the quota of slaves that are shipped off to the Lothan Aklun. Nine years have passed, so the exiled royal children have grown up considerably. What’s even more interesting is that they’ve all changed radically. The youngest boy, Dariel, has become Spratling, a dashing young pirate. The youngest girl, Mena, has somehow washed up on a remote island group and has become the embodiment of Maeben, a vengeful raptor goddess. The oldest boy, Aliver, has been with the Talay, who initially come across as a set of average all-purpose primitive sub-Saharan tribes. The oldest girl, Corinn, is now the captive guest of Hanish Mein, the leader of the race that knocked over the Acacian empire in the first section. When it comes to Hanish, Corinn is so torn between revulsion and fascination that it soon becomes clear that there’ll be romance in the air at some point. This second section is so different from the first one — and so much better — that it’s almost as if you’re suddenly reading an entirely different novel.
It’s also at this point that a few of the more interesting world-building details from the distant past of this world really start to take shape. On one side of the world you have the Mein, who were defeated in the past by one of the first Acacian kings and banished to the far North. What’s even worse, that Acacian king also put a curse on them, preventing their dead from truly dying and instead keeping them in a horrible undead form of stasis. They’ve been stacked in catacombs for centuries and their collective consciousness, which drives the Mein’s thirst for revenge, is referred to as the Tunishnevre. A part of the curse that doesn’t entirely make sense to me is that the blood of an Akaran needs to be spilled to lift the curse and bring them back to life. If I ever have cause to put a curse on an entire race of bloodthirsty Viking-analogues that I’ve just defeated, I definitely won’t make it so they’d need the blood of one of my own descendants to get free of it....
On the opposite side of the world, there are the Santoth, mythical sorcerors from the time of the Giver (the world’s deity) who were banished to the far south of the continent. Thaddeus Clegg sends Aliver on a quest to find them, which results in one of the best scenes in the entire novel. Aliver, in mystical, telepathic communion with the Santoth, learns that they were banished by Tinhadin, who was the last sorceror to have access to The Song of Elenet, the encyclopedia of the Giver’s language, which gave him limitless powers. When all that power went to Tinhadin’s head, he crowned himself king, establishing the Akaran dynasty, and banished the other sorcerors (who came to be known as the Santoth) to the far south of the continent. Now the Santoth need The Song of Elenet to regain their full powers, be freed from their exile and, incidentally, help Aliver reclaim his birthright and his empire. (Aliver also learns from the Santoth that the Acacian people are actually remote descendants of a displaced and defeated Talayan tribe.)
And finally, the barbarian, man-eating Numrek, who aided the Mein during their war of conquest, have set up on the main continent and seem to have completely transformed their appearance. Eventually it’s explained that they were cast out from their part of the world, and that the Lothan Aklun are actually not the real power but instead just intermediaries between the League of Vessels and a mysterious and fearsome race called the Auldek. (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that this explanation, as it appears in Acacia: The War with the Mein, is at best a gross oversimplification of the details you’ll learn in The Other Lands, but more about that in the next post.)
At this point it also becomes clear that the three exiled royal siblings are on the verge of mounting a counter-offensive against the Mein. Aliver, thanks to his Talayan training, has become a powerful warrior and leader who is trying to unite the various tribes into a considerable fighting force and who may be able to summon help from the Santoth. He’s also learned from Thaddeus about the true (read: horrible) nature of the Empire and has idealistic notions of abolishing slavery and improving life for the common people. Meanwhile, Spratling/Dariel is met by the old general Leeka Alain and mounts a spectacular attack on one of the League’s platforms. Mena, who has learned an impressive amount of swordfighting skills in a very short time from Melio (one of Aliver’s former training buddies who somehow managed to track her down), also hears about the growing resistance movement, and decides to set off for the mainland after killing her “goddess” in a truly spectacular scene.
At the start of the third section of the novel (“Living Myth”), everything is clearly starting to work its way towards a huge confrontation between the Mein and the Akaran siblings. When Darien returns to the mainland, he is reunited with Aliver. They march north, gathering an army from the reinvigorated populace, helped by the Santoth who have cast a spell that helps people kick their state-sponsored Mist addiction. Then Mena joins them after first easily defeating a shipful of men sent to capture her (those sword lessons must have been very effective!) and then easily finding her brothers on the mainland (even though Hanish’s multiple search parties were completely unable to do so for years.)
Meanwhile on Acacia, Thaddeus decodes a mysterious utterance by the late king Leodan, easily wanders into the Mein-occupied palace, and recovers The Song of Elenet, which somehow had been sitting in plain sight in the king’s library all along. Corinn realizes she’s in love with Hanish (yes, the man responsible for killing her father and destroying her family’s empire) and becomes his lover/confidante. She also learns that 1.) her other siblings are in the process of mounting an attack on the Mein and 2.) she’s in line to become sacrificial fodder to revive the Tunishnevre, who are en route from the Mein homeland to Acacia.
When the final climactic battle starts, the Santoth lend some supernatural aid to Aliver’s forces, while the Mein side, led by Hanish’s brother Maeander, deploys a set of fearsome beasts called “antoks.” These tear through Aliver’s army until, somehow, a set of islanders from Mena’s old exile home show up in the middle of the battle, which helps Aliver come up with a clever strategy to defeat them. The end result is a stalemate, which they finally attempt to break by a duel between Aliver and Maeander. After Aliver loses this duel and dies, Dariel dishonorably commands his troops to kill Maeander, breaking the rules of the duel and setting off the all-out war again. Things look bleak for the Acacians until suddenly the Santoth reappear, angered by Aliver’s death, and settle things once and for all.
However, all isn’t well, because Corinn has by now decided that she enjoyed the taste of power at Hanish’s side, if not his plans to sacrifice her. She’s struck a deal with various factions, including the Numrek, who she promises a war of revenge against the Lothan Aklun in exchange for an attack on the Mein palace, culminating in the execution of Hanish on the altar originally intended for her own sacrifice. She has also allied herself with the League of Vessels, who withdrew their naval support from the Mein at a critical juncture. By the time we get to the novel’s epilogue, it becomes clear that Corinn now sees herself as the new queen, with her two surviving siblings relegated to smaller roles and all thoughts of Aliver’s idealistic plans to improve life for the common people long forgotten. She is pregnant with Hanish’s child.
In the end, I enjoyed most of Acacia: The War with the Mein, but I do feel that it has a few shortcomings. The first section of the novel is the weakest, as it’s a bit too scattered between different points of view, with characters who — at that point at least — feel like standard fantasy templates. I was really surprised when the visiting Prince Igguldan gallantly promises to rescue Corinn, only to be mowed down in the first major engagement of the war. I didn’t see that coming! The second section of the novel is much better, showcasing different areas of the world. Thanks to the nine year break, the siblings have become less recognizable and much more interesting. On the other hand, it’s occasionally a bit long-winded, with entire chapters that can be summarized in one or two sentences. The third and final section delivers some genuine tension and a thrilling ending. (And keeping this trend going: The Other Lands, book two of this trilogy, is a much better novel overall.)
Some of Acacia: The War with the Mein’s plot twists and coincidences felt, to me at least, highly unlikely. I’ve tried to point some of them out in the plot summary, and there are more if you care to look for them. I’m not saying these ruin the book (and I realize I’ve grossly oversimplified some things in this summary) but I do feel that you need to suspend your disbelief to the breaking point more than a few times in order to enjoy this novel.
And finally, this is one of those novels that seems to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the reader. Nordic barbarians! Noble savages! Royalty in exile! Undead ancestor worship! Pirates! After a while, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Durham had thrown in some vampires or airships. (Note: I had another example here originally, but after reading The Other Lands I had to cross it out, because yes, it did end up popping up...)
Still, while I wasn’t crazy about the start of Acacia: The War with the Mein, one of its best aspects is that it turns into a completely different novel by the time you’re done. While the empire has come full circle, from Akaran rule to the Mein and then back to a different Akaran, all the main characters have gone through surprising transformations and the world’s history and geography have acquired some real depth. What’s even better is that the most interesting bits are clearly waiting in the wings, with tangible tension between the royal siblings brewing, and the mysterious Lothan Aklun and Auldek sure to make an appearance in The Other Lands.