Acacia: Book One - The War with the Mein
by David Anthony Durham
Review by John Berlyne
Doubleday Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780385614474
Date: 19 May 2008 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
David Anthony Durham's much-lauded fantasy début is published by Doubleday this month. Acacia has been much hyped, but will British readers find themselves as impressed as their American cousins? This month see the British publication of Acacia by US writer David Anthony Durham – an author who has achieved admirable success with his historical fiction, most notably with his novel Hannibal: Pride of Carthage. This is a fair pedigree for Durham bring to the creation of his debut fantasy novel and it was warmly received when it appeared in America in June last year. One particular review from "Library Journal" even managed, in its single paragraph of comment, to liken Acacia to the works of George R.R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula Le Guin, an assessment which is as ambitious as it is misleading.
Acacia belongs to the Cecil B. DeMille school of fantasy – it is broad, sweeping and epic, colourful and features thousands of extras all enjoying their moment of melodrama. It is a work of grand scope and panoramic views, but it suffers badly from its uneven construction - it's a little over-stuffed in places and a little under-stuffed in others.
The plot is relatively simple. An island nation holds political sway over much of the known world. The King is a flawed fellow, troubled by the pressures of his position and squeezed by the juggling of state matters that are essentially the very definition of politics. He finds solace from two very different sources – the first being his four children to whom he is devoted. Durham draws faint sketches of each one, but they slide into cliché with far too much ease for my taste. There's the oldest, the male heir to the throne, training to be a soldier and in the awkward middle years between boyhood and manhood. He is not able to leave the former behind, but still not yet ready for the latter: the next is a girl, very much the princess, all about clothes and riding and courtly gossip. The third, a girl also, is "the clever one" who shows intellectual guile and curiosity and finally there is the youngest, a boy, adventurous and under everyone's feet. Durham tries admirably to make each of these children distinct, and though he has mildly better success with them as grown-ups later in the novel, the first third of Acacia reads as something that we've all seen before – not only in A Song of Fire and Ice but also in countless other fantasies going back to C.S Lewis's Narnia tales. Durham add nothing to this well trodden route in his novel.
This aside, the King's other diversion shows more promise for the reader than the children do, certainly at first, for he is addicted to a drug called "Mist". This plot device is interesting, for the King's ancestors made a bargain generations ago to supply a race of traders via go-betweens with a regular tithe of children (with no knowledge of their eventual fate) in return for which they received regular shipments of a highly addictive narcotic via which the ruling classes could subjugate their people. In short this perilous and terrible transaction is the source of the Acacia's stability and the knowledge that their powerbase is corrupt and immoral weighs heavily on the King. Luckily for him then, he is bumped off by an assassin who – with worrying ease – manages to infiltrate the palace,e and the killing is the opening salvo in a war that topples the throne, again with startling swiftness and a woeful lack of opposition.
Herein lies the nub of what troubles me about Acacia, for things often seem to happen with astonishing convenience. With all its fantastic and impressive world building, Acacia suffers a sustained lack of believable drama. For sure there are periods in which events inherently engage the reader, but the novel is long and wordy and sprawling, with many (too many) point-of-view characters and the drive of the plot suffers accordingly. Consequently, Durham's characters are either good, but not that good, or bad but not that bad. It could be that this moral ambiguity is a point the author is making, but the net result is that there's not a lot between all these folks. It's all a bit "wishy-washy" and when it comes down to it, they just aren't that interesting.
The death of the King results in his children being exiled. The thin line between Durham's characters has the King's vanquisher, a warlord from the North, finding himself in much the same position as the man whom he had murdered and whom he has replaced. The new ruler still needs the Mist to keep his subjects quiet and he seems equally uncomfortable with the deal. This deliberate statement by Durham is pertinent, for it tells us that whichever party wins the war/election, they're all pretty much as bad as each other when they take up residence in the palace. Other allegories are at work here too, not least the notion of the infiltrator assassin whose actions start the ball rolling. Durham taps into our current fears about there being traitors in our midst, about fundamentalism and about cultural differences seeding global discontent. This all works reasonably well, but it is not meat of the novel, and so is never more than a mere side dish.
As for the magic in the novel, it's really not at all well defined. There are hints of a great and ancient magic, long forgotten, still at work in the world and other accoutrements enter stage left, magical books, wondrous beasts and suchlike, but like the many of the characters, they're a convenience of the setting rather than integral elements designed to drive the story forward. I'm left with the impression that although Durham wanted to write a fantasy, he didn't want to write too much of a fantasy. In that, he has surely succeeded. In the end, it is hard work deciphering whether the people cause the events or the events cause the people in Acacia, and in truth, the book is ultimately a lack-lustre affair – a lot of effort for a little reward.