Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Book review: Acacia - Book One: The War with the Mein

There's no Fringe tonight, so after you vote why don't you go read a book or something? Like this one, for instance:

Acacia – Book One: The War with the Mein is a vast, ambitious first foray into fantasy for professor and novelist David Anthony Durham. Durham’s last novel was historical fiction and this background has served the author well, enabling him to create a richly textured universe, deeply saturated with politics, history, mysticism and an identifiable human component.

The island of Acacia is the seat of power for the Known World, ruled for generations by the Akaran dynasty. The current king, Leodan, has four children whom he loves deeply – sons Aliver and Dariel, daughters Corinn and Mena – and who have grown up in the lap of luxury, indulged but instructed in the ways of their people. What the king has kept from his children, however, is the harsh reality of the Akaran legacy; their great wealth and power has been funded by slave labor and drug trafficking. The ruling class has a business arrangement with some very nefarious people: Leodan supplies an annual quota of children, taken from all the countries under his rule, in exchange for a supply of “the mist,” a narcotic that keeps his suppressed subjects docile.

When brutal invaders from the north, led by the ruthless and charismatic Hanish Mein, attack and easily decimate the Acacians, the Akaran children’s lives are irrevocably and utterly changed. Sent by their father to the far reaches of the Known World, the children grow up, alone and with little recollection of their Acacian heritage. It is their destiny, however, to find each other again, after they have discovered their true selves, and reunite to challenge the Mein for control of the world.

Acacia is a massive book (753 pages in the trade paperback release) and there is a lot going on in it. The pace is slow at first, with nearly 200 pages passing before the action really kicks into gear. But the time is spent laying out the historical, political and religious foundations of this new fantasy world, as well as introducing the myriad characters and peoples that populate it. Because there are so many separate plot threads, Durham uses the narrative technique of focusing on a single character’s story in each chapter, much like Robert Jordan did in the latter books of the Wheel of Time series. Unlike Jordan, however, Durham is conscientious about circling back to each character: although I found it difficult to connect emotionally with the characters in the first half of the volume, by the close of Book One I felt that I knew them and had gotten good resolution to their stories.

Durham also does a nice job with many of his characters, giving them interesting motivations and decisions to make. While some are clearly heroic figures and others plainly villains, many are more complicated and I enjoyed having my sympathies shift back and forth as the book went on.

It is my understanding that the author intends this saga to run as a trilogy and no more. I like that there is an end in sight – there will be a plan and a deadline by which to wrap up all the plot threads. Although Acacia is a big book, and I have no reason to expect any smaller tomes for the second and third installments, this should not dissuade fantasy fans from this new epic. Book One of the Acacia Trilogy is well-written and intelligent fantasy, full of schemes and magic and machinations and bloody battles. There’s something for everyone in Acacia.

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