Uber-spoiler warning. Seriously, if I throw out major twists like they're candy. You have been warned.
Also, I link to TVTropes a lot in this review. A lot. You have been warned.
I first read this book a number of years ago and liked it. It's remained in the back of my mind all these years, half-remembered. When I learned of the sequel, I resolved to read it again; now that I found the sequel at the library, it's about time I make good. As with most books I've enjoyed in the past, I've romanticized some of my memories about this one—it's almost as good as I remember it being. David Anthony Durham has a talent for fusing the epic scope of battle and politics with the intimacy of personal vendettas and intrigue. He is rigorously competent at epic fantasy.
Acacia manifests a lot of the standard fantasy setting, particularly medival stasis and cookie-cutter nationalities. The characters, at times, are stock and two-dimensional, with the usual medieval fantasy motivations. The plot, loosely-summarized, goes like this: king of a static empire built on slavery is assassinated by agents of an oppressed, exiled people; his children are scattered and mature in secret, only to arise and try to win back the throne. Except it all goes horribly wrong, and that should be a sign that Acacia is more than you average formulaic fantasy novel.
The plot of Acacia may be nothing new, but Durham brings to it a gritty realism that makes it feel fresh. With most books that follow this trope, an unquestionably evil villain unseats the monarch, and the protagonists engage in a righteous quest to restore the true heir to the throne. Not so here; Durham wields the Oven Mitt of Moral Ambiguity in such a manner that it's quite possible to see Hanish Mein as the righteous liberator and the Akarans as an oppressive regime.
Leodan Akaran is an idealist trapped in his own version of hell. His empire sustains itself on the backs of child slaves shipped overseas to trading partners he has never met. In return he receives "the mist," a drug that pacifies a significant percentage of the population, including those who live their entire lives as workers of the empire's mines. And this is not a new development; it's been going on for five hundred years, ever since Leodan's ancestor Edifus conquered "the Known World," banishing an ethnic group known as the Mein to the north. Edifus' son Tinhadin killed his two brothers and used magic to curse the Mein so that their dead would never find peace. Turns out this creates the Tunishnevre, a collective awareness of the Mein's ancestors, which yearns to be released upon the world in all its undead strength. The key to this creepy lock? Akaran blood at the sacrificial altar, obviously. Nice job, Tinhadin.
Those are the good guys. The Mein, ostensibly the bad guys, have a ruthless warrior culture. Rite of succession: the Maseret, a "deadly dance" that is a duel to the death, winner takes leadership of the people. Favourite pastimes: hating on the Akarans, honouring their ancestors (the Tunishnevre), and breeding an army that will sweep across the Known World as soon as Leodan is assassinated. Once in charge, Hanish Mein does not abolish the Quota, as he claimed he would, and pretty much steps into the Akaran shoes. Oh, and he lies to Corinn Akaran even as he falls in love with her, promising to keep her safe while plotting to kill her so he can free the Tunishnevre.
So looks like there really aren't any good guys after all. There's just bad and worse (and it's hard to tell which is which).
Despite this admirable ambiguity, there is no contest. If you cheer for the Mein, then you are out of luck. And how can you help but cheer for the Akarans? They are practically a menu: even if you don't like Aliver (which I don't) there's still Mena, the Badass Princess; Dariel, the Wise Prince; and Corinn, who starts off somewhat spoiled but ends up Queen of the Known World and mother of Hanish's child. Take your pick.
Aliver mounts his resistance. Hanish's brother and second-in-command, Maeander, leads an army to meet Aliver on the field of battle. After some carnage on both sides, Maeander challenges Aliver to single combat. And here's where Acacia shines in its difference: Aliver loses.
When I originally read this book, I did a double-take and reread that passage. I couldn't believe it. This was the duel where the rightful king kills a pretender (or in this case, the pretender's brother)! But no, Aliver exits the story prematurely, and suddenly the ending is up for grabs. In an instant, Durham creates uncertainty about an otherwise routine plot, and in so doing, makes me care about the outcome of the story. Will the remaining Akarans find a way to defeat Hanish? Or will the story end with the release of the Tunishnevre? It's clear that this is the first in a trilogy, so I was prepared for a cliffhanger.
The actual ending to Acacia does not disappoint. Durham drives a thin wedge between Corinn and her two remaining siblings. Corinn takes a page out of Hanish's book and takes back the throne through treachery. Once reunited with her siblings, she greets with affection but keeps herself at a distance. She's no longer the innocent princess she was at the beginning of the book. She's no longer the caged princess at the mercy of the Mein. She's the queen, and unlike Aliver, she brooks no notions of abolishing the Quota or granting provinces their independence. As Acacia comes to a close, we get a glimpse of things to come. But this book is not mere lead-in to the rest of the trilogy. It's a tragic story in its own right, one in which there is no clear winner. The Akarans come full circle, having lost their empire and reclaimed it, with their world no better off—indeed, it is perhaps much worse, having to cope with new tenants like the Numrek and the devastation wreaked by the Santoth. Acacia is the first bloody drop that signals the end to stasis.
If Durham's deftness with politics raises Acacia above its generic fantasy origins, his writing style threatens to plunge it back into those depths. This is where my memory was generous. Much of the story is exposition, with paragraphs upon paragraphs elaborating on cities, on people's pasts, on historical events. Most of this information is relevant, but Durham recounts it in such a dry and matter-of-fact manner. Instead of showing a lot of the action, he just tells us what happened in hindsight. There are notable exceptions to this rule—the fight against the antoks, Aliver's duel with Maeander, Mena's murder of Maeben—but in general, Durham's writing is too descriptive. His sentences are elaborate, flowery; they often try too hard to be melancholy when the events they describe would suffice to evoke such a tone on their own. And Durham can't help but remind us, over and over, of such simple facts like the empire's dependence on the avaricious "league," a naval trading conglomerate. This heavy-handedness does not do justice to an otherwise intricate story.
I love fantasy stories, but it's true that this is a genre easily bent to a formula. The novels that manage to stand out do so by subverting, averting, or excelling at this formula. With Acacia, Durham does all three of these things. This is the type of quality fantasy that I love to recommend to fantasy lovers and fantasy neophytes alike.