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A Series Review: Acacia by David Anthony Durham

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Monday, June 11, 2012

A Series Review: Acacia by David Anthony Durham

"Of course a thing that could be made into a weapon would be made into a weapon. It did not matter if it was a thing of beauty. It did not matter if their mission was holy and benevolent. It only mattered that The Song could be twisted to serve human greed. If that was so, it was only a measure of time until someone grasped for it." 
- The Sacred Band, David Anthony Durham
That quote stood out to me in the final volume of The Acacia Trilogy. I wouldn't say it's the theme of the series distilled down into four lines of prose, but it is pretty representative of one of the many contained there in. On the surface, David Anthony Durham's trilogy, and first foray into genre fiction, looks like run of the mill epic fantasy. His protagonists are four royal children whose father is struck dead in the opening moments of the first novel, The War With the Main, forcing them to scatter, grow to adulthood, and return to restore peace to the Akaran Kingdom and the Known World. It's not quite the farm boy prophesied to save the world, but it's not far off.

I began with this quote not because of its significance to the overall message of Durham's work, rather because it signifies an attempt to speak to something larger than the narrative itself. I suspect that many reviews written about Durham's series will laud it for its progressive nature (edit: after writing this post I read NethSpace's review that does just that) and rightly so.

At the start of the story, the Akaran kingdom has been ruled by a family for generations. Their power is maintained through an arrangement with a powerful entity across the sea. In exchange for a drug called mist, the Akaran's offer up a quota of children for an unknown purpose. Through mist they create a pliable population to work the mines and fields that sustain their reign. Unlike so much fantasy, the series ends not with the status quo (i.e. - the evil defeated), but with legitimate change and progression toward something better, brought about by the will of the characters and their own growth. Suffice to say there's a great deal to chew on with regard to Durham's social commentary.

While this discussion isn't necessarily my central focus, I mention it to highlight the depth achieved by Durham in a less than expansive canvas. The three book series, while historically the standard in genre fiction, has gotten complicated. Epic fantasy has become unwieldy. Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Brooks, and all the rest keep writing in the same world. The result is a massive backlog of story that encourages readers to either plow ahead without knowing what's come before or invest gads of time and money catching up. This is fine, they're great authors who write great books. Unfortunately, I've a belief that these types of fantasies have bread an inherent attempt to find the next Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire.

As a result, we have Brandon Sanderon's Stormlight Archive, Peter V. Brett's Demon Cycle, and Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin. Not because readers want length; because they crave the sweeping canvas, the endless scope, and the breadth of change. Packing more into three volumes than many authors can pack into ten, Durham's Acacia bucks that trend to return epic fantasy to its structural roots, embracing tropes, while simultaneously moving afield.

One of the places he most manipulates expectations is in his approach to characters. Many modern fantasies, from the Joe Abercrombies and K.J. Parkers of the world, present the individual, heroic or otherwise, as a self-interested actor. To those authors, morality is a judgement after the fact. Actions can be interpreted to be good or evil, heroic or cowardly, but the motivations behind them are always inherently selfish. This is juxtaposed by the traditional fantasy character who sacrifices himself for the greater good, or sacrifices everyone for his own gain.

In Acacia, Durham handles it different still. Morally relativistic, yes, but with an intrinsic belief that most people want to do the right thing. Even Durham's "evilest" characters act in (what they've convinced themselves to be) the best interests of others. To them, the ends always justify the means. Layered there is an argument that power corrupts in so far as it blinds the individual to the consequences of action. It's an interesting conversation at Abercrombie and Parker who write without a recognition of good and evil. To them all motivations are the same, only outcomes differ, interpreted as right or wrong objectively by others. Durham recognizes goodness in all its forms, most especially when evil is done in its commission.

It's all of these reasons that War With the Mein was the novel that brought me back to fantasy. What made me really sit up and take notice was the subtext -- the frank discussion of social class, duty, family, and morality. There are times when Durham's characters become Mary Sues. And moderate levels of deus ex machina rear their head from time to time. For me, these moments are easily pushed aside, ignored in favor of the poignant story, memorable characters, and vast change ushered in with every page.

Published by Anchor, a Doubleday imprint and publisher of mainstream fiction, War With the Mein generated a lot of early buzz, including a John W. Campbell Award nomination for Best New Writer for Durham. Alas, with a two year delay between books and a first installment that lacked obvious newness, some readers moved on. That was a mistake and George R. R. Martin agrees with me, recently blurbing the series' reissue in trade paperback.

The new editions of the trilgoy come with Martin's recommendation, but also 14,000 words lighter. Responding to critics and readers who found the early part of War With the Mein slow, Durham tightened things up, cutting exposition and redundancies without changing the plot or characters. I think it speaks to the truth that each novel in the series improved as Durham did as a writer.

I still worry that not enough readers will find Acacia. I hope this review will help in that regard. It rekindled in me a love of fantasy and for that it will always hold a place in my pantheon. More importantly though, it's a series I'll pass it on to my children for the honesty that David Anthony Durham brings to the Known World. I hope it isn't the last we've heard of him in genre fiction.

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At June 11, 2012 at 10:19 AM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

I'm reading Acacia right now and while only about a quarter through the first book, those themes you mention already stand out. I'm excited to get to the next volumes if they're that much better because I'm already extremely happy with this first bit. :)

At June 11, 2012 at 10:35 AM , Blogger RobB said...

I've been intending to return to this series for a while. I really enjoyed the first one quite a bit.

Your review just convinced me how much I want to revisit the if my Mount Toberead, and the River of Wanted Books are large enough.

At June 11, 2012 at 10:49 AM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

That last part gave me a good chuckle. That is all. :)

At June 11, 2012 at 11:03 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

River of Wanted Books. that's a metaphor I might have to borrow, as I formerly borrowed Mount Toberead from Fred Kiesche. :)

At June 11, 2012 at 11:34 AM , Blogger Carl V. Anderson said...

I've wondered about this series for a while, drawn to the wonderful cover images. Great job in telling me why I should read this without in any way spoiling the experience. Thank you! Now if I just had a month to go on vacation so I could get caught up with all my reading!

At June 11, 2012 at 3:05 PM , Blogger Neth said...

It's always simply been The Stack for me, though it in now resembles a stack anymore - more of jumble of many stacks in compination with many shelves. The River of Wanted Books is nice - I'll have to use it. I'm pretty sure I'll drown in that river one day.

At June 11, 2012 at 3:44 PM , Blogger Bryce L. said...

I've never understood the 'to "be" read' name. Why not just "to read."

I've been slowly drowning in that river, hence why I'm always reviewing books from last year instead of the current year.

At June 12, 2012 at 9:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually plan on listening to the audio version of The Sacred Band after I finish the latest Honor Harrington audiobook. I'm not really into Epic Fantasy, beyond a few series, but I really liked Acacia and The other Lands. I've put The Sacred Lands on hold for far too long, so when I saw your tweets about you upcoming reviews and interview, I downloaded it.


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