by David Anthony Durham
Leodan Akaran, ruler of the Known World, has inherited generations of apparent peace and prosperity, won ages ago by his ancestors. A widower of high intelligence, he presides over an empire called Acacia, after the idyllic island from which he rules. He dotes on his four children and hides from them the dark realities of traffic in drugs and human lives on which their prosperity depends. He hopes that he might change this, but powerful forces stand in his way. And then a deadly assassin sent from a race called the Mein, exiled long ago to an ice-locked stronghold in the frozen north, strikes at Leodan in the heart of Acacia while they unleash surprise attacks across the empire. On his deathbed, Leodan puts into play a plan to allow his children to escape, each to their separate destiny. And so his children begin a quest to avenge their father's death and restore the Acacian empire—this time on the basis of universal freedom.
Acacia is a thrilling work of literary imagination that creates an all-enveloping and mythic world that will carry readers away. It is a timeless tale of heroism and betrayal, of treachery and revenge, of primal wrongs and ultimate redemption. David Durham has reimagined the epic narrative for our time in a book that will surely mark his breakthrough to a wide audience.
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review): In this sprawling and vividly imagined fantasy, historical novelist Durham (Pride of Carthage) chronicles the downfall and reinvention of the Akaran Dynasty, whose empire, called Acacia, was built on conquest, slaving and drug trade. The Acacian empire, encompassing "The Known World," is hated by its subjugated peoples, especially the Mein, who 22 generations earlier were exiled to the icy northland. Having sent an assassin to kill the Acacian king, Leodan, the rebel chieftain, Hanish Mein, declares war on the empire. As Acacia falls, Leodan's treasonous but conflicted chancellor, Thaddeus Clegg, spirits the king's four children to safety. When the Mein's rule proves even more tyrannical than the old, the former chancellor seeks to reunite the now adult Akaran heirs—the oldest son Aliver (once heir to the throne), the beautiful elder daughter Corinn, their younger sister, Mena, and youngest brother, Dariel—to lead a war to regain the empire. Durham has created a richly detailed alternate reality leavened with a dollop of magic and populated by complicated personalities grappling with issues of freedom and oppression.
Locus: On the textual surface, there are all the color, excitement, intrigue, combat, grotesque invention, grandiose-scene setting, perilous questing, and pyrotechnic supernaturalism that genre fantasy demands; but every incident and vista counts toward a socioeconomic calculus... The War With The Mein, or the first third of it, is a political novel of large impact, as radical a rewriting of Martin as Martin himself performed on Tolkein. Rarely has the medieval epic been quite this pertinent.
Entertainment Weekly: In its 576 pages, Acacia tackles some big themes: In addition to military occupation, slavery, and substance abuse, Durham weaves in holy war and chemical weapons. Since this is the author's first foray into fantasy—he has three historical novels to his credit—it makes sense that he would bring Earth's ills with him. But you don't have to draw parallels between, say, Halliburton and Acacia's seafaring war profiteers to savor all the throat-cutting and dirty dealing. It is enough to know that Durham's new world—like our old one—is crawling with wickedly fascinating scumbags. A-
James Patrick Kelly, Hugo Award Winner: Treachery in the throne room, princes in hiding, ancestors reaching from beyond the grave, wars of succession—this is a novel that Shakespeare would have loved. David Anthony Durham is rebuilding epic fantasy from the ground up. There are books that you visit for a vacation and then there are books that you live in. Get ready to have your mail forwarded to Acacia.
Kirkus Review (Starred Review): Something genuinely new from the author of historical novels about the black American experience (Gabriel's Story, 2001; Walk Through Darkness, 2002) and the Second Punic War (Pride of Carthage, 2005). Volume One of a planned trilogy, it's set in a fictional empire, the Known World, whose political center is the fertile and temperate island realm of Acacia, ruled by King Leodan Akaran. He's a compassionate monarch who sincerely mourns his beloved wife and dotes on his four vibrant children: stalwart Aliver, his ingenuous brother Dariel and their sisters, headstrong Corinn and stoical Mena. Yet Leodan has inherited his wealth and power from "a slaving empire... [that] traded in flesh... [and] peddled drugs to suppress the masses." Opposition to Leodan's ostensibly benign reign appears at the outset, as Thasren Mein, one of three brothers who effectively rule a distant (and impoverished) northern wasteland, travels in disguise to Acacia to assassinate his people's longtime enemy. From every corner of the Known World, tribes and enclaves ally themselves with Akarans or Mein, and gradually assemble into battle positions. Meanwhile, a plan conceived long ago by Leodan and now orchestrated by his Chancellor Thaddeus Clegg (one of several characters possessed of divided loyalties) sends the royal children away, into separate adventures and ordeals: Mena among a remote island culture's sinister priesthood; Dariel as a warrior member of Rebellious Outer Island Raiders; Corinn as the mistress of Machiavellian Mein Chieftain Hanish; and Aliver as the hero he was bred to become, challenged to defend his people in single combat. The novel's strong echoes of Homer and Virgil, Tolkien, Norse mythology's Twilight of the Gods and America's compromised history as a republic built on slavery fuse into an enthralling, literate and increasingly suspenseful narrative. Heavy going, but Durham has imagined its landscape and ethnography in persuasive detail. Many readers will eagerly await the continuation of Acacia's story.
SF Site: One of the delights of reading Acacia are the sudden, unexpected developments in the story. Durham is completely unafraid to play against convention and the reader's expectations. Wars begin and end as quickly as they started, the lives of major characters take surprising twists and turns. Just when you think the story is going to fall into a familiar pattern, characters die, or their actions expose motivations that are completely apart from what you'd expect them to be.
Don D'Ammassa: The prose is first rate, clear and to the point, witty and intelligent without drawing attention to itself. I've read quite a number of debut fantasies this year, most of which claim to be the advent of someone new and influential in the field. This is one of the few times I've thought they were right.
The Agony Column, Rick Kleffel: Durham's novel bristles with the joy and power of a historical novelist freed to create his own history... What informs this novel and sets it apart is what made Earthsea so special, a fully realized world of humans as varied as the usual elves, dwarves and whatnots. Well that, and an immense writing skill that brings a literary flair as well as lots of excitement to the novel.
Revolution Science Fiction: David Anthony Durham has pulled off something remarkable: a huge, sprawling epic that manages to weave together history, politics, intrigue and thunderous action scenes without ever losing track of the multitudes of finely-drawn characters.
Strange Horizons, Hannah Strom-Martin: Through a vivid depiction of ethnically diverse cultures, breathless warfare, and a deep understanding of that old adage—"Those who cannot learn from the past are doomed to repeat it"—he creates not only a philosophical epic for the thinking fan but also a masterpiece of character and realism that even a theory-clutching Joyce scholar could appreciate. Acacia isn't just a vastly entertaining epic. With its symbolism, pathos, and penetrating examination of political motives, it's downright literary... At book's end, with characters you were rooting for dead and a new generation set to redeem or annihilate the Known World through their separate ambitions, you can only throw up your hands and thank God there are two more volumes still to come in this story of political fury and intrigue. Because as many twists as Durham has taken you on, you still get the sense that he's barely begun to get to the heart of his mythic vision—or the true soul of his characters. Will good win out over evil? In Durham's morally ambiguous world, the uncertainty is part of the thrill.
The Washington Post: A Kingdom Crumbles by Rachel Hartigan Shea: The Akaran royal children in David Anthony Durham's thrilling Acacia bear a passing resemblance to the scrappy siblings from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aliver, heir to the throne of the Known World, worries that he doesn't have the stuff to be king; Corinn, his sister, is beautiful, deceptively shallow and adept with a bow and arrow; Mena, the younger sister, is courageous and astute; and Dariel, the youngest, tends to wander off where he shouldn't. But the world that Durham has created for them is far grimmer, and far more sophisticated, than Lewis's charming Narnia.
From the first pages of Acacia, Durham, a respected historical novelist, demonstrates that he is a master of the fantasy epic. He quickly sets out in broad strokes the corrupt world that these unwitting children have been raised to rule. For 22 generations, the Akarans have presided over the empire of Acacia. And for 22 generations, they've sent a yearly shipment of child slaves to mysterious traders beyond their borders, "with no questions asked, no conditions imposed on what they did with them, and no possibility that the children would ever see Acacia again." In exchange, the Akarans get "mist," a drug that guarantees their subjects' "labor and submission."
I give nothing away when I say that this empire is doomed. In the opening pages, an assassin from the Meins—a "bickering people" from the frozen North, "as harsh and prone to callousness as the landscape they inhabited"—is on his way to the capital city with his sights set on King Leodan, the children's kind and hapless father. The Akaran children must flee their sumptuous palace for hostile country, with no god-like lion poised to give his life for theirs. The Acacian god, the Giver, has forsaken them.
Durham sacrifices nothing—not psychological acuity, not political complexity, not lyrical phrases—as he drives the plot of this gripping book forward. The names of people and places sound as if they've been recalled from a dusty past, not cobbled from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, a far too common practice among fantasy writers. Tropes that sound outlandish—"dream-travel," for one—are credible in Durham's telling. And the story always surprises. Characters that seem poised to take center stage are killed abruptly. Evil often triumphs.
The rickety supports that grand empires rest on clearly fascinate Durham—the long-time advisers who have grown resentful, the client states that fake their willing submission, the trading monopoly that sees profit in regime change. And the Akaran aristocracy is deaf to the rumblings beneath them. Hanish, the clear-eyed leader of the Meins and architect of the coming disaster, relishes their complacency: "Better that his coming shock them to the core and leave them reeling and grasping for meaning, too late to recognize the true shape and substance of the world they lorded over."
When the empire falls, it does so quickly and horrifically. Palace guards and household servants slaughter their masters. The Meinish have allied with the Numrek, "screaming, stomping, mirthful agents of carnage," who cut a gruesome swath through the land. Plague strikes the Acacian army, and its soldiers sweat blood and "lay prostrate in writhing intimacy with the earth." The dead are past counting.
But as exciting as all this is, the collapse of the Akaran empire is only the beginning of this grand tale. Aliver, Mena and Dariel, raised anonymously and separately in quiet corners of the fallen empire, become warriors eager to redeem "the rotten heart of Acacia," while Corinn, a captive in the palace where she grew up, plots bloody revenge from within. How will it all end? If the first volume of this projected series is any indication, in brilliant—and brutal—defiance of fantasy conventions.