Epic fantasy and I have a mixed relationship. Obviously I like some of it, or I wouldn’t be bothering to re-read The Lord of the Rings one chapter at a time. I like its scope, that is, the way it delivers society-changing events, significant individual actions, worldbuilding that reaches back into history and outward across countries or continents, and lots of Really Cool Stuff turned up to eleven. And so I’ve read my share of post-Tolkien epic fantasy . . . but almost none recently. I stopped reading a couple of ongoing series because I didn’t have the time, and I never seem to get around to trying new ones, whether because I’m wary of starting an unfinished series, not excited by a teenager with a Destiny running around a medievaloid European-ish map, or just getting my significant personal actions and Really Cool Stuff elsewhere.
I’d heard a lot of good things about David Anthony Durham’s Acacia (Doubleday), however, and this year’s Hugo voting finally got me to read it. (Durham is nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.) I took so long writing this review that it’s now time to give the awards, not vote on them, but I enjoyed it greatly and am glad that the voting deadline finally bumped it to the top of my pile. Acacia has all the things I like about epic fantasy, plus an unusual and fascinating world and a plot rooted in fundamental questions of social justice. And though it’s the first book in an unfinished trilogy—the second book comes out in September—it tells a complete story in and of itself. If you like epic fantasy, or if you want to like epic fantasy but haven’t been excited by the genre lately, give Acacia a try.
Like much else in Acacia, the Acacian Empire is not as it first appears. Encompassing all of the Known World, from the frozen north to the desert south [*], it has been ruled by the Akaran dynasty for twenty-two generations. But its surface stability and prosperity is the result of a deep and shameful secret:
There was a power, [the second Akaran king] Tinhadin learned, greater than his own. They were called the Lothan Aklun. They were of the Other Lands, outside the Known World, separated from them by a great ocean. . . .
The agreement must have seemed a bargain at the time. The Lothan Aklun promised not to attack the war-ravaged land and agreed to only ever trade with Akarans. All they needed to assure this beneficence was a yearly shipment of child slaves, with no questions asked, no conditions imposed on what they did with them, and with no possibility that the children would ever see Acacia again. In return for this they offered Tinhadin the mist, a tool that, they promised, he would find most helpful in sedating his fractious wards. . . . Since then, thousands upon thousands of the Known World’s children had been shipped into bondage, and millions under Akaran rule had given over their lives and labors and dreams to the fleeting visions brought on by the mist. . . . Such was the truth of Acacia.
This immediately reminded me of the teind in “Tam Lin,” and I look forward to examining the Other Lands’ resemblance to Faerie and/or Hell in the next book. This book, however, tells of a narrower consequence of the age-old bargain: how the Mein, betrayed and conquered by Tinhadin, attempt to overthrow the Akaran dynasty.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Mein’s attempts are initially successful, which is handy because otherwise I couldn’t say anything useful about the book. In response to these successes, the Akaran king’s four children are scattered across the empire; nine years later, they are the focus of an effort to remove the Mein from power.
A number of reviews I’ve seen compare the royal children to the Penvensies in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which surprised me because the comparison that immediately came to my mind was the Stark children in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (though, granted, the numbers do not parallel). (Durham has said that he had not read that series before starting his own.) I do see some similarities in personalities and actions between all three series, which seem to me the natural result of the kinds of stories that are being told. But there are major differences. For one, the royal children in Acacia are all adults by the time the main body of the action starts—which I admit I found a relief, because the early tastes of awkward teenage years and so forth, though realistic and sympathetic, were not something I wanted hundreds more pages of. For another, life is a lot more complex in the Known World than in Narnia. (I only remember bits of the first two books of A Song of Ice and Fire, so I’m less certain about how Acacia‘s complexity compares to that. I will note, though, that those of you familiar with ASoIaF may be amused to hear that I stopped reading after the second book because there were too many characters for me to keep track of.)
That complexity starts with the Acacian Empire’s histories: oral histories, histories of the schoolroom, histories of different peoples, histories understood differently within peoples, histories told as pointed anecdotes. And these histories, inevitably, are often incomplete, misunderstood, or outright false. As a result, one of the key struggles in the book is whether to accept or reject the past, by perpetuating one’s ancestors’ choices or bringing back things lost to history—such as sorcery itself. And this is often tied to the other key struggle, that of means versus ends, which is especially difficult in an imperfect world populated by the well-meaning but fallible.
That brings us back to Acacia‘s characters and their levels of complexity. Most of the time this works well for me, but not always: my principal misgiving about the book is its characterization of Hanish, the leader of the Mein, and Corinn, the older of the Akaran princesses. The text’s attempts to complicate Hanish came too late for me: I’d already formed a complete and consistent view of his personality and couldn’t reconcile the new information with that. As a result, I have an uneasy feeling that I take a significantly darker view of his relationship with Corinn, who has lived as his captive for nine years, than the text does. Corinn is also a difficult character whose portrayal walks some pretty fine lines; I’m okay with where it falls here, but considerably nervous about where it might go in the future.
But generally I found the characterizations satisfying at the least and moving at best. At one point I thought that Corinn’s brothers and sister were too perfect, but subsequent events addressed this concern. And I liked the treatment of their growing up in exile, how being alone in different cultures changed the way they saw themselves and the world. I also didn’t think there were too many characters or too many viewpoints, a problem I sometimes have with epic fantasy.
These viewpoints are in third person, and a fairly distant or unfiltered third at that. Something about the prose put me off the first time I tried reading the book, but I was in a weirdly sensitive mood at the time; now I can’t pinpoint what was bothering me and had no trouble sinking through the page. I will note, however, that the prose is distinctive in that it uses more summaries of conversations, as opposed to word-for-word recountings, than I am used to.
In fact, it was the viewpoint choices that successfully drew me into the book on this read. On one hand, as a reader I naturally tend to sympathize with people who are innocents, like the royal children, or well-meaning and targeted for assassination, like their father, all of whom get early viewpoint chapters. On the other, the Acacian Empire is genuinely oppressive, that is, Bad Guys. So that created a good deal of tension for me, as I wondered how those sympathies were going to be resolved.
Also, of course, there was the tension of plot: what are the Mein planning (besides assassination, that is), what will happen to the royal children, will the effort to remove the Mein succeed? I found that the more plot- and action-oriented sections both gave me lots of Really Cool Stuff and moved at a satisfyingly brisk pace, ending with a completed plot arc (hooray!) but larger problems on the horizon. As a result, I have hopes that the next two books in the trilogy will remain two books.
And I’m looking forward to the world continuing to open up in those books. The Known World itself contains great diversity of cultures and the full range of human skin colors—plus the Numreks, a group that enters the Known World during the book and whose humanity in the literal sense is an interesting and open question. And this range and scope is one of the book’s great attractions to me. But we’re promised even more new and different things in the Other Lands, and I’m excited about this for itself (what are the Lothan Aklun doing with the thousands of children they are sent every year?) and for how much further the characters’ understanding of the world will be challenged.
My flippant one-line comment about Acacia is that it’s epic fantasy that lets me respect myself in the morning. It’s flippant because I don’t actually know that most epic fantasy wouldn’t—as I said, I haven’t been reading new stuff—but I am truly enthused by the way it uses its big, wide, deep, Really Cool epic-ness to tell a story about social injustice, corruption, power, and humanity in all its variations and permutations. Give the sample chapters a try and see what you think.
[*] Speaking of geography, I tend not to look at books’ maps, but Niall Harrison’s review of Acacia uses the book’s map to excellent effect. He also discusses the absence of non-elite characters, something I should have caught myself. Note that his review contains slightly more spoilers than this one, but nothing I would call book-destroying.