Acacia: The War with the Mein (2007) is the first volume of David Anthony Durham's epic fantasy trilogy. Acacia is set up as a by the numbers saga. A benevolent, if weak-willed, emperor oversees a collective of disparate kingdoms. His four young children each burn with their own ambitions. A mysterious overseas power plots death and destruction, while an aggrieved horde of barbarians plot to take the throne for themselves.
Mr. Durham even starts the book with a very traditional ticking clock. An assassin of the Mein, the northern barbarian hordes, is heading to the island of Acacia, the seat of the empire. His goal is clear: to assassinate the Emperor. To the reader's horror, the empire's lazy posterity has made an easy environment for the assassin's success. It quickly becomes apparent that the book is about when - not if - the Emperor will die.
The Emperor and his family lounge about, struggling with all the daily problems of being the dynastic descendants of continent-spanning despots. The oldest son, Aliver, craves power and adventure. Corinn, the beautiful daughter, looks for true love. Mena, the wise daughter, just cares about her father and siblings. All so touching, so sweet, and so unbelievably misguided. While they fiddle about with lessons and stories, disaster marches inexorably closer to them.
But beneath the gilded surface, Acacia is a troubled land. The luxury and ease experienced by the Emperor's family is limited solely to the aristocracy. Soldiers (pressed from the conquered regions), miners (slaves, largely) and servants keep the land running, creating a vast, unhappy base to the pyramid. The middle and working classes are kept in check by drugs - a powerfully addictive substance called "mist". The Emperor is essentially the land's largest dealer, providing the mind-numbing substance at a minuscule cost in order to keep the people numbed. The drug itself comes from across the ocean, brought over by sinister traders and paid for with the lives of children. The "Quota", a deceptively bureaucratic sort of name, is a levy on the land's youth, with thousands of the empire's young chained and shipped overseas to an unknown fate. As the empire grows more decadent and stagnant, the mist becomes more important, which makes the Quota more essential, which leads further and further into a vicious circle of resentment.
By the time the Mein's assassin reaches the palace, the role of hero and villain has been, if not inverted, at least shaken. The Mein have been oppressed and exiled for centuries. The Acacians have been dealing in drugs and slaves. Who exactly are the heroes here? Mr. Durham also draws attention to the institutionalisation of the problems. The Mein were exiled twenty-two generations in the past but have shaped their entire culture around reinforcing the need for revenge. At what point does a quest for justice become engrained bitterness? The Acacian children are unaware of the world's structure, or the pacts that they will inherit. Those that do understand, like the Emperor, struggle daily with their inheritance. Do they deserve to be sacrificed as penance? Mr. Durham avoids all moral certainty - everyone is both good and evil, innocent and guilty.
The inevitable occurs early in the book, and the unsteady foundation of the series is further unsettled as a result. Mr. Durham fills his books with the moments that high fantasy readers will recognise, but they never play out as planned. Spoiled young men grow to heroic manhood. Beautiful girls become lovestruck princesses. Lovers are star-crossed. Destinies are fulfilled. Lost magic is unlost. Mighty duels are duelled. Evil spirits are raised (evilly). Repeat ad infinitum. For the first book in a trilogy, Acacia already contains a multi-generational epic in which storylines are raised, resolved and then reframed. For although the scenarios are familiar, nothing ever results as expected.
In a sense, the closest comparison is Sam Sykes, whose savage deconstruction of sword and sorcery mirrors Mr. Durham's assault on the entrenched tropes of epic fantasy. And both writers craft their style to fit the medium. While Mr. Sykes writes bloody, sweary, visceral prose to reflect the bloody, sweary, visceral characters (and the bloody, sweary physicality of their adventures), Mr. Durham's style is almost deliberately poetic. Characters spend a lot of time looking at birds or trees, or pondering thoughtfully on aspirational ideas. They have mythic presence and a hint of unreality, posing heroically in a world while knee-deep in a world that's deliberately grubby. Although they're fascinating characters - especially the four Acacian children - they're each a subverted archetype, as appropriate to the school of Tolkien as Sam Sykes' adventuring party is for Dungeons & Dragons.
Beyond its progressive meaning (and there's not even space here to get into Acacia's stunning significance in terms of both race and gender roles within fantasy), Mr. Durham's tinkering with high fantasy standards gives the reader a fresh book. Acacia is genuinely astonishing, filled with surprises and shocks. Characters grow and change, are corrupted and redeemed, and plots twist in wildly unexpected ways. Although the map is familiar, the journey is something completely new. If Acacia succeeded in nothing else, it would be a fantastic story, and a welcome new spin on comfortable old tales. But, and I can't convey this strongly enough, it does so much more. Mr. Durham uses the rather hackneyed archetypes of Acacia to explore the underbelly of epic fantasy itself. Every step of the way, Mr. Durham looks a bit deeper and invites the reader along with him - not to find answers, but to appreciate the discussion. The nature of heroism and destiny, the role of monarchs and the chosen - all concepts taken for granted, explored creatively and cunningly by a master writer.
(US cover shown, although it is a bit stodgy. I think the UK one reflects a different (if legitimate) interpretation of the book - more gothic and personal than epic. I really like the French cover, although it has that comic book tone that many French fantasies have. Italy for the win?)