Acacia: The War With the Mein by David Anthony Durham

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Acacia is the first fantasy book written by David Anthony Durham, who started with historical fiction. It has many of the elements of epic fantasy - the characters are kings and princes and princesses, the plot involves quests for revenge and redemption that will determine the fate of an empire, etc. But it also completely ignores the most common epic fantasy conventions. There’s no hero’s journey here, no clear-cut evil bent on destruction that must be defeated. There’s mostly people, with a range of flaws and motivations.

It’s a massive, sprawling, complicated book. At the beginning, the Akaran family control an empire ruling over most of continent they call “The Known World,” encompassing a wide range of geographic and cultural variation, with its heart in the island of Acacia. The Acacian power is built on slave trade and highly addictive drugs, and life is not so great for most people. The Mein, a fierce people obsessed with their betrayal by the Acacians during the founding of the empire, are finally ready to take revenge. At first I thought perhaps the Mein would be righteous liberators who fought against an evil imperial power (I’ve read my share of epic fantasy, after all), but this book doesn’t have easy answers. The Akaran king is a gentle man who loves his children and doesn’t really know what to do with his empire. The Mein rebellion happens quickly, and things get messy from there. It turns out they have struck a deal with the same mysterious overseas power that demands the slaves and provides the drugs that kept the Acacians in power. The Meinish leader finds that ruling an empire is a complicated business, and it’s difficult not to simply keep doing what has always been done.

And then the other two-thirds of the book happen. Durham shows us a lot more of the Known World. There is idealism and scheming and betrayal, piracy, long-lost magic, mysteries left unresolved, even some romance. Pretty much the characters are swamped. The prose style is elaborate, long on description and dramatic weight, and it may not be to everyone’s taste, but I thought it suited the pace and atmosphere of the story.

What kept me from devouring this book quickly was the lack of a clear emotional focus for the reader. If a novel can have an ensemble cast, this one does. All five of the most important characters get about equal narrative time, and another four or five supporting characters get some chapters told from their perspective. It makes sense given the scope of the plot, but what usually keeps me reading a book is an attachment to characters and the desire to see their struggles resolved (also I kept losing track - I made good use of the Kindle’s text search while reading). It’s the main reason I read more SF than anything else, really - the opportunity for exciting adventure stories about good people facing terrible high-stakes situations. But it’s not the only thing I love about the genre, and Acacia is chock-full of the rest - thorough, fascinating world-building; thoughtful consideration of cultures and ethics; and even if the action is uneven, I couldn’t ask for more in the way of high-stakes adventures.

And I had my favorite characters of course, but in a long, intricate book like Acacia where they only show up here and there, it’s easy for me to lose interest. I did spend a couple of weeks on this one, in between quicker, fluffier reads. Usually if I’m not done with a novel within a week or so, I’ll never bother to finish it, but this one kept quietly drawing me back, and once I was done I immediately added the sequel to my wishlist.